“The mystic chords of memory...will yet swell...when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The elf and the Qunari woke at the same time, sat up, and looked at each other with matching expressions of confusion.
They had been lying side by side in a clearing in the woods and all around them were the signs of battle - arrows lying in the dirt, a tree that had been nearly felled by a mighty blow, spatters of blood and crushed glass. They were otherwise alone.
The elf had deep brown skin, a strong jaw, and long red hair. White tattoos - the vallaslin of the Dalish - covered his face. He was wearing worn hunting leathers and had an empty quiver slung over his shoulder. A snapped bow lay mournfully at his knee.
The Qunari was huge, with wide, heavy horns, a scarred face, and an eyepatch. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, only a leather harness and a pair of billowing pants that had seen better days. An enormous, brutal war axe was still clutched in one of his hands.
The two men blinked stupidly at one another for a moment.
“Who are you?” they both asked at the same time.
“Good question,” they both responded.
“That,” the elf said, “seems like a problem.”
The Qunari was already getting up, wincing as an old hurt he couldn’t remember throbbed in his knee. He checked himself for injuries, but there were only bruises and a few shallow scrapes. His skin was tingling with wrongness. He chalked that up to the fact that he couldn’t remember jackshit.
“What do you remember?” he asked the elf.
“Absolutely nothing,” the elf said. “And you?”
“Just that I really fucking hate magic,” the Qunari said, examining the shards of glass on the ground nearby. “Lyrium potions. Looks like two or three bottles. Whoever it was turned tail and ran, even with both of us knocked out. Must’ve been totally drained. If we look around a little bit, we might even find ‘em passed out in the bushes.”
“Aren’t you clever?” the elf said, standing up.
He brushed the dirt off his pants and kicked at the useless remains of his bow with a frown.
“I hope that wasn’t sentimental,” he said.
The Qunari had started wading into the underbrush, looking for their assailant. The elf joined him. There were no convenient, unconscious mages to be found. They did find evidence that a horse had been nearby in the form of droppings and prints headed east.
“Maybe an hour old,” the elf noted. “Whoever it was is long gone now.”
“Well, fuck,” the Qunari said. “They definitely did something to us. Guess we gotta track ‘em down.”
“What, so we can get the guy who messed with our heads to mess around with them some more?” the elf asked. “No thanks.”
“Nah, I just wanna beat the everloving shit out of him,” the Qunari said.
“Now that,” the elf said, “is a plan I can get behind.”
They returned to the clearing. The elf began gathering the arrows that could be reused, dropping them into his quiver one by one. As he did so, the Qunari paced the area, examining the signs of the fight. He looked at the footsteps in the dirt, at the scorch marks on the nearby trees, at the powdery residue of some kind of smoke bomb or flash bang coating the leaves and grass.
“We must know each other,” the Qunari said. “We were fighting side by side.”
“Maybe we’re brothers,” the elf said.
They considered each other seriously for a few seconds before bursting into a fit of loud, shared laughter.
“Ha, oh, good one,” the Qunari said, bent over slightly, hand on his knee as his laughter petered out into chuckles. “Brothers.”
“Alright, since you’re so smart, why don’t you tell me who we are,” the elf said.
The Qunari gave him an evaluating squint, then looked at his own huge hands, calloused and grey.
“Clearly you’re a Dalish elf,” he said after a moment. “Or were, anyway.”
“Clearly?” the elf asked.
“You’ve got the tattoos for it,” the Qunari said, motioning to the elf’s face.
“Yeah,” the Qunari confirmed. “All spikey. Don’t know what they mean, though. Sorry.”
“That’s fine,” the elf said. “But it is weird, not knowing what my own face looks like. Do you know you’ve got an eyepatch?”
The Qunari leveled him with a dry look. “No, I thought I was a cyclops.”
“Just checking,” the elf said. “It’s a nice eyepatch.”
“Thanks,” the Qunari said. “They’re nice tattoos.”
The elf preened.
“I know,” he said, running his fingers through his hair.
“You didn’t even know you had them a minute ago.”
“Yes, but I have this deep, unshakable feeling that I am an incredibly good looking man,” the elf said. “I’m certain of it, in fact.” He flashed a winning smile.
The Qunari grunted. The elf wasn’t wrong.
“Don’t worry,” the elf said. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
“Thanks,” the Qunari said, but it was a lot more exasperated this time.
“You know, if we fought together, maybe that’s what we do,” the elf said, looking around the clearing. “Bounty hunting or mercenary work or something.” He looked at the Qunari, and then nodded once, confident. “Yes, that’s it. We’re a team, you and I: brains and brawn.”
“Oh yeah?” the Qunari asked, unimpressed.
“Yes,” the elf said. “You’re the brains, I’m the brawn.”
The Qunari grinned at that. Then he turned thoughtful, considering.
“That does make sense,” he said after a beat. “Explains what a Qunari is doing out here in - wherever we are. And not back in Par Vollen. Lots of Tal Vashoth become mercenaries.”
“You think that’s what you are?” the elf asked. “Tal Vashoth?”
The Qunari shrugged. “Dunno what else I could be.”
The elf hummed and patted at his pockets, feeling their contents. He sank into a cross-legged sit and started pulling objects out for examination. The Qunari watched for a moment, and then followed suit. Together they made a small mountain range of objects.
“I seem to be well equipped to murder people,” the elf said brightly, adding yet another small throwing knife to a steadily growing pile. They had been concealed on various parts of his person, each one somewhere more unlikely than the last.
Next to this pile were several pouches of powdered herbs and small vials of swirling liquids that they agreed, after close examination, were poisons, smoke bombs, and other such substances. He also had a small amount of coin, a set of loaded dice, a worn lock picking kit, and an ugly little carved halla that was probably a token or good luck charm of some sort.
There were also a pair of silky red panties that had been stuffed into his pants pocket.
“I can’t decide if these are mine or someone else’s,” the elf said, holding them up.
“Compare them to what you’re wearing,” the Qunari suggested.
“Oh, I’m not wearing any,” the elf said. “That’s what makes me wonder.” He stuffed them back into his pocket and gave the Qunari a once over. “I guess they’re too small to be yours.”
The Qunari gave him a sly grin.
“Who knows,” he said. “I’m not wearing any either.”
From his own pockets, the Qunari pulled a number of equally mysterious objects - a little stone seal with a symbol on it that neither of them could make heads or tails of, a small jar of balm, and a fat coin purse that jingled loudly as he dropped it on the ground.
“If we’re a fighting team,” the elf said sourly, “then I want a bigger cut.”
“Nah, looks like I’m the boss,” the Qunari said. He was examining a folded piece of parchment that had been tucked into his belt. “Look, a contract.”
He passed the document to the elf, who gave it a once over.
“‘The Duke Fontaine,’” the elf began to read, “‘hereby agrees to pay to the Iron Bull and his mercenary band, the Chargers, the sum of…’ How much? I definitely want a bigger cut. ‘...for the capture of the apostate Delmon Etienne…’ Well now we know who our culprit is.” He passed the paper back to the Qunari. “You must be the Iron Bull.” He perked up. “Unless I’m the Iron Bull.” Then he deflated again. “But the papers were in your pocket. Plus, the horns. Lucky. That’s quite the name.”
“Yeah,” the Iron Bull grinned. “I like it. Sounds violent, fits right.” He rolled his neck side to side, cracking it. “I was right, too: I must be Tal Vashoth. There are no names under the Qun. And I guess you’re one of my Chargers.”
“Hm,” the elf said. “I must be second in command.”
“Is that so?” the Bull asked, amused.
“Yes,” the elf said. “I wouldn’t settle for less. As a warning, I have a feeling that I chafe under authority.”
“You wouldn’t chafe under my authority,” the Bull said with a salacious look.
“My,” the elf said. “Fraternizing with your subordinates? What a terrible man you must be. How do you sleep at night?” He reached for the money pouch.
“Don’t think there’s much sleeping,” the Bull said. “What are you doing?”
“I won’t take anything,” the elf said. “I just want to have a look.” He opened it up and poked around inside for a moment. Wistfully, he said, “You have so much money. Oh, there’s something else in here.”
“What is it?” the Bull asked, leaning forward.
The elf fished out two necklaces. They were simply crafted, each only a leather thong with part of a large broken tooth of some sort hanging off the end.
“Huh,” the elf said, examining them. “Looks like a matched set.”
“Yeah,” the Bull said slowly. He stared at the necklaces for a long moment, serious and thoughtful.
“Do you remember what they are?” the elf asked.
“No idea,” the Bull said.
The elf squinted at him. The Iron Bull’s face was the picture of honest ignorance.
“There’s no point in lying to me, you know,” the elf said anyway. “What am I going to do about it?” His lips twitched. “This the Qunari equivalent of a pair of panties?”
“Like I said,” the Bull said, reaching out to take the necklaces from the elf, “I have no idea.” He dropped them back into the coin purse and started returning his possessions to his pockets. “We should probably get moving. We have a whole band of mercenaries, right? The Chargers. They’re probably looking for us. And I’d really like to chat with this Etienne guy.”
The elf let the topic of the necklaces go with a hum and began picking up his own things. The knives took a while, but he seemed to instinctively remember which ones went where.
“There’s the matter of my name,” the elf said, standing up once more. “I guess you could just call me knife-ear, but that might make some people mad.”
“It doesn’t make you mad?” the Bull asked.
“I think I just find it funny,” the elf said. “You know - ‘you call me knife-ear because of the ears but just wait until you find out about the knives,’ that sort of thing.”
“Ah,” the Bull said. He thought for a moment. “Let’s call you Red for now.”
“Because of my hair?” the elf asked, running his fingers through it again. It was pretty distinct. “That’s not very creative.”
“No, because of the panties,” the Bull said. He hefted his axe onto his back and turned back toward the trail of prints. “Come on, let’s not waste any more time.”
“Oh, I like you, the Iron Bull,” Red said, following him. He left the broken bow where it lay on the ground. Sentiment or not, it was of no use to him now.
“Yeah, you’re not so bad yourself,” the Bull said.
They headed east, following the trail, and soon found themselves on a muddy, well-traveled highway running north and south. The trail became lost among the hundreds of other prints and wagon wheel ruts, leaving them no clue which way to go. A coin toss had them going north, until they found a sign post which told them they were headed toward Val Fontaine.
“Aw, tits, we gotta turn around,” the Bull said. “Etienne definitely went south, not back toward our employer.”
“The Chargers might be in Val Fontaine,” Red said.
“Could be,” the Bull said. “They could also be tracking Etienne. We don’t know where they are, though, and we have a pretty good idea where Etienne is going, at least for the moment.”
“Fair enough,” Red said.
They turned back around and went south.
“I wonder what the other Chargers are like,” Red mused as they walked. “Do you think they’re all as…” He held a finger to either side of his head. “...horny?”
“I have a feeling I’ve heard that joke enough times that it’s not funny anymore,” the Bull said.
“Oh, come on,” Red pouted. “If you can’t remember it, it doesn’t count.”
The Bull considered the validity of that statement. It was definitely wrong, he decided.
“No one’s as horny as me,” he said anyway. “In any respect.”
“There!” Red crowed. “Nothing’s better than an overdone joke. The little things really are the best part of life.”
“I’m sure I could change your opinion on that.”
“You’re on a roll. Keep going, Bull, and you’ll make me swoon.”
“To actually answer your question,” the Bull said, “I guess there’s a chance the Chargers could be Tal Vashoth. Lots of them form bands together. Just as likely they’re all elves like you, though.”
Red tried to picture the Iron Bull leading a Dalish clan into battle. It was bizarrely easy. Then he tried picturing the Iron Bull with a full face of vallaslin, herding halla peacefully in the Dales, and had to stifle a snort.
“I bet they’re all dwarves,” he said at last, snapping his fingers. “We only hire dwarves so that when we walk into a room everyone is intimidated by how much taller you are than them.”
The Iron Bull laughed loudly.
“You think I need help being intimidating?”
“No, but it’s weird enough that everyone’s distracted while I pick their pockets,” Red said. He tapped his temple and winked. “It’s all about how you play the room, Bull. Remember that.”
“Sure,” the Bull said, amused. “Thanks for the advice.”
The road meandered south for a little ways, passing through idyllic Orlesian countryside dotted with forests and rolling green hills. Eventually they came to a fork in the road. Another signpost helpfully marked each of the two diverging paths.
“If I were an apostate on the run from a duke and a band of angry mercenaries,” Red said, stepping up to the sign, “where would I go: to Lake Celestine or a place called Shadows Keep?”
They looked at each other.
“Shadows Keep,” they agreed with one voice, and took the left branch.
The pastoral countryside quickly dropped off into barren plains dotted with imposing rock formations and scraggly, dead-looking trees. The clear afternoon went from pleasantly warm to uncomfortably hot without any cover or breeze to soften the full glare of the sun.
“It’s a shame they never build the ominous lairs of misfortune in more scenic places,” Red said as they passed a flock of crows picking at the skeletal remains of a ram. “Say, on a nice beach.”
“Clearly you’ve never been to Seheron,” the Bull chuckled.
“And you have?”
They both stopped walking.
“Huh,” the Bull said. “How ‘bout that.”
“Do you remember anything else?” Red probed.
“No,” the Bull said. “I don’t know, maybe I just heard about it somewhere. There’s plenty of Tal Vashoth on Seheron, but not many of ‘em ever leave. Mostly they just go mad and start killing until they get put down like animals.”
“Well, you don’t seem mad to me,” Red said. “I mean, if you’ve been on any crazed, murderous rampages since we woke up, it’s been while my back was turned.”
The Iron Bull frowned. He felt strangely uncomfortable, but he couldn’t figure out why. It was like there was something just on the tip of his tongue, a word he couldn’t remember, a smell he couldn’t quite place. It’d been like that for a while now, but this felt somehow worse. Then there were the dragon tooth pendants. He had the same feeling when he thought about them, about what they meant.
“Hey - ” he started to say to Red, a little nervously.
Of course, that’s when they were set upon by bandits.
“Put your weapons at your feet, nice and slow,” a man in patchwork armor instructed them as he stepped into their path.
He and the chipped and dented sword he held in his hand weren’t that much of a threat. Unfortunately, they were accompanied by two archers that suddenly appeared from behind the rocks on their left, and two swordsmen that appeared on their right. A shifting in the dirt announced that another two men had come up behind them. They were surrounded.
Red and the Iron Bull looked at each other.
“Okay,” Red said with a shrug, and started pulling daggers out.
The Bull took his axe down and propped it in front of him, leaning on the haft of it as he watched Red work. Red removed his throwing knives just as slowly as he’d been instructed, dropping each one with a careful clatter at his feet.
The longer it took, the more uncertain the bandits seemed to become. The two swordsmen on the right exchanged nervous glances.
“Say,” the Bull said conversationally, “you boys been out here for long?”
“Uh,” the bandit leader said distractedly, watching Red pull a dagger out from a concealed sheath strapped to his inner thigh. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Robbed anyone else today?” the Bull asked. “A beat-up looking apostate by chance? He would’a looked pretty rough.”
“Now I know what you’re thinking,” Red was saying to the swordsmen, having pulled the panties out of his pocket with one finger. “‘Not a weapon.’ That’s because you lack imagination.” He dropped them onto the pile.
“Uh,” the bandit leader said again. “Yeah.” He shook himself and refocused on the Iron Bull, squinting suspiciously. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just curious,” the Bull said. “About how long ago do you think that was?”
“I’m not telling you shit, oxman,” the bandit leader said. It appeared he’d finally lost his patience. “Throw your weapons down, or we cut out your other eye.”
“All of our weapons?” Red asked with a pained look. “Are you really sure? This could take a while.”
“ Yes , all of your weapons,” the bandit leader snapped. “Quickly!”
“Your call,” Red said.
He grabbed all the pouches and vials on his belt and threw them as hard as he could, the vials toward the swordsmen and the pouches toward the archers.
There was a cry of surprise as a massive cloud of smoke obscured the archers, and an arrow went whizzing past the Iron Bull’s back. It passed over Red, who had ducked in preparation for just such an event, and struck one of the swordsmen on their right, both of whom had started coughing and making loud wheezing sounds into their elbows. The swordsman who had been hit by the arrow took it straight to the face. He fell over dead.
The Iron Bull raised his axe and charged at the bandit leader. The bandit leader stumbled backward in shock, apparently unprepared to face the full force of a large, angry Qunari. Red grabbed a pair of knives from his pile and turned to the bandits at their backs. Both of them headed straight for him. He tossed a dagger with a neat little thwap! into one of their throats and dodged a blow from the other’s sword.
The Bull easily cut through the bandit leader with little more than a shout and a squelch - the bandit barely had time to raise his dinky little sword - and turned on the archers. The cloud of smoke still obscured one of them, but the other had leapt nimbly backward, up on top of a boulder. He nocked an arrow and aimed it at the Bull, who swung his axe through the smoke and brought it crashing down onto the bandit bent double and coughing still inside.
“Watch the archer, Bull!” Red shouted, parrying a second sword blow with his remaining knife and nearly snapping his own wrist in the process.
The Bull turned his body just in time to catch the arrow in his thick leather pauldron.
“Watch the swords, Red!” he shouted back.
The second swordsman that Red had caught with the vials had managed to steady himself despite the tears leaking from his bloodshot eyes and the trickle of blood streaming from his nose. He lunged at Red with a yell, and suddenly Red had two swords racing at him from two different directions.
He threw himself to the side, rolling across the road and kicking up dust. That gave him an idea, though. As the swordsman with bloodshot eyes came at him a second time, he scooped up a handful of coarse dirt and small rocks and tossed it straight in his face. He howled with pain, dropping his sword and reaching up to claw at his eyes.
The Bull turned and barreled at the remaining swordsman with a roar. Behind him, the archer nocked another arrow and fired it straight into the Bull’s bicep. It didn’t stop the brutal swing of the Bull’s axe, which knocked the bandit from his feet and sent him flying into a nearby boulder with a sickening crack. He didn’t get back up.
The cloud of smoke around the fallen archer had dissipated now. Red scurried toward him, grabbed the bow from his still warm hands, and reached for an arrow from his own quiver. The archer on the rocks was faster, but his hands were shaking as he watched his fellow bandits drop one by one. His shot went wide, swiping past Red’s head and only nearly missing his ear. Then the archer staggered backward, an arrow firmly planted in his chest. Blood bubbled up out of his mouth as he tilted and fell forward onto the road.
The Bull reached up and ripped the arrow out of his pauldron, then snapped the shaft of the arrow in his arm, leaving the arrowhead in for the moment. On the ground at his feet, the last living bandit was curled into a ball, sobbing into his own hands.
“Hey, we make a pretty good team,” the Bull said to Red.
“No wonder they pay us so much,” Red said, joining him.
He kicked at the sobbing bandit.
“Hey, you,” he said. “Tell us more about the apostate you saw.”
“You stupid fucking knife-ear!” the man shrieked through his fingers. “Look what you’ve done to me!”
“Are you calling me that because of the ears or the knives?” Red asked. He slapped the Bull in the side and grinned. “I told you that was funny.”
“You know, you guys have been pretty rude to us so far,” the Bull said, crouching down. “First your boss calls me an oxman, then you call my friend here a knife-ear. That’s the kind of thing that might give a guy a low opinion of Orlais and its fine people. Kind of a shame. It would go a long way toward fixing intercultural relations if you helped us out and answered a few questions.”
“Fuck you!” the man shouted. Blood was dripping down his cheeks in thick rivulets.
The Bull looked up at Red, a little impressed.
“What was in that stuff you hit him with?” he asked.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” the Bull tried. “Tell us about the apostate and we let you live.”
The man cried brokenly, his whole body wracked with sobs.
“This offer has a time limit, shem,” Red said. At the Bull’s disapproving look, he said, “What? He called me a knife-ear. Fair’s fair.”
The Bull turned back to the bandit. “How long ago did he pass through here?”
“T-three hours, maybe a little more,” the bandit said. He sniffled loudly. “He was on horseback, b-but he looked pretty bad, like you said.”
“And you guys robbed him?” Red asked. “What’d you get off of him?”
“Nothing,” the bandit said. “He didn't have a coin on him and even his horse looked like it was on its last legs.”
“And after that did he keep following the road or head off somewhere else?” the Bull asked.
“He followed the road,” the bandit said. “He was babbling about needing to get to Shadows Keep right away, I don’t know why. It’s a half-day’s ride up the road. That’s all I know, I s-swear! Please - please - ” His anger seemed to have drained into pure pain as he laid there crying, limp and useless.
“Seems like that’s about all we’re gonna get outta this guy,” the Bull said, standing up.
“His friends, however,” Red said eagerly, turning to the dead bodies scattered across the road. He bent down over the nearest fallen swordsman and began rifling through his pockets.
The Bull stood and examined the layout of the battlefield.
“The way they fell in behind us was pretty smooth,” he admitted. “Didn’t even hear them coming.”
“Yeah, but the archers were standing straight across from their own men,” Red said, moving on to the next body. “What’s the first thing that happens? Arrow in the wrong guy. Sloppy.”
The Iron Bull made a rumbling sound of agreement. “Unprofessional, is what that is,” he said.
He looked down at Red’s pile of daggers, which was still on the road. The panties were there, too, lying sadly in the dust. He bent down and plucked them up to save them from this undeserved fate. They really were tiny.
“Hey,” Red snapped, suddenly in front of him, snatching them back. A faint blush dusted his cheeks. “Don’t touch those.”
A slow smile crept across the Iron Bull’s face.
“What are you getting embarrassed about?” he asked. “You don’t even know if they’re yours.”
“It’s a matter of principle,” Red muttered. He shoved them back into his pocket and offered a small red vial toward the Bull in its place. “Here. I found a few healing potions. Pull that arrow out of your arm.”
“Oh, yeah, I almost forgot,” the Bull said, accepting the vial. “Thanks, Red.”
“Don’t mention it, Bull.”
Red moved on to compare the bows of the two fallen archers as the Bull worked the arrowhead free with a small grunt and downed the potion. Red slung the bow he preferred across his back and snapped the other one across his knee.
“So, Shadows Keep?” he said as he stooped to gather his throwing knives back up. “At least we know where he’s headed.”
“Yeah,” the Bull agreed. “I’m a bit worried about why he was so eager to get there, though. Could be he has backup.” He frowned. “I wish we could remember why the Duke wanted us to track him down.”
“I kinda figured it was the apostasy thing,” Red said. “Humans just hate free mages for no reason, right?”
“He’s paying a lot of money to take care of one mage, though,” the Bull said. “And the contract says to bring him back alive. Seems personal.”
Red hummed thoughtfully. He was a lot faster at replacing the knives this time around.
“How many health potions did you find?” the Bull asked.
“Three, not counting the one I gave you,” Red said. He glanced up, a flicker of worry crossing his expression. “Why? Did you need another one? I didn’t see you get hit.”
The Iron Bull held out his hand and Red quickly put one in it. Then he watched as the Bull turned and went back to the bandit curled up on the ground. The bandit had passed out from pain, so the Bull uncorked the vial and poured it into his mouth, massaging his throat to make sure he swallowed.
“You softy,” Red said fondly from his shoulder. “We might need that later, you know.”
The Bull shrugged.
“We told him we’d let him live,” he said. “Just keeping up our end of the bargain.”
“You can’t fool me,” Red said. “You’re just a big ol' pile of cuddles, aren’t you? Running around the countryside kissing kittens and rescuing babies from trees.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” the Bull said, standing up. “The Iron Hug, they call me.”
He scooped Red up, threw him over his shoulder, ignored the resulting shriek of protest, and started off down the road.
“Put me down!” Red said, beating at his back.
“No can do,” the Bull said cheerfully, stepping over the nearly bisected corpse of the bandit leader. His guts squelched loudly under the Bull’s boot. “It’s cuddle time with the Iron Hug.”
“Get your hand off my ass!”
The Bull let Red squawk at him for a little longer before he finally set him back down on the ground.
“It’s amazing that I’ve put up with you for so long,” Red said, straightening his leather coat indignantly.
“What, a couple of hours?” the Bull asked.
“No, for as long as we’ve been working together,” Red said. “We’d have to be well established, to get contracts from Dukes. And I don’t like people, but I like you. So it has to have been ages.”
The Bull blinked and looked at Red. Red had a thoughtful look on his face.
“What makes you say that?” the Bull asked. “That you don’t like people.”
“I don’t know, it’s just a feeling,” Red said. He pursed his lips. “I’m Dalish, aren’t I? I have the tattoos and everything. So why aren’t I with my clan?”
“There are lots of reasons a Dalish elf might leave their clan,” the Bull said, carefully not saying, ‘like if they all died.’ “Doesn’t necessarily mean anything about you.”
Red was still frowning. He pulled the little carved halla out of his pocket and turned it over in his hand. Whoever had whittled it clearly hadn’t known what they were doing, and it was covered in uneven strokes and chips where the knife had dug in too hard by mistake. It was really only discernible as a halla through guesswork and imagination. It definitely had four legs and something that could’ve been antlers.
“I don’t like people,” Red repeated, more sure of it this time. “I don’t get along with them.” He put the halla back in his pocket and smiled up at the Bull. “But I like you.”
The Bull smiled back.
“Going soft on me, Red?” he asked.
“Not at all,” Red said. “One of us has to stay hardened, and clearly you aren’t up to the task. You’re the brains, I’m the brawn, remember?”
“I remember,” the Bull agreed.
And neither of them did, really, but it didn’t seem to matter.
They walked until the sun started to set, at which point they decided they’d better stop and make camp. The Iron Bull started a small fire while Red went out and shot them a pair of jackrabbits to roast.
“Do you think this counts as cannibalism?” Red asked, chewing on a mouthful of tender meat. The Bull had turned out to be an excellent cook. “Me eating rabbit?”
“You tell those jokes just to see people squirm, don’t you?” the Bull said.
“I dunno,” Red challenged back. “Is it working?”
“There are more enjoyable ways to get people to squirm,” the Bull said. “That’s all I’m saying.”
They evaluated each other from across the fire.
“Say, Red,” the Bull started innocently, “what do you think the chances are we’ve never slept together?”
“Very small,” Red admitted.
There was a long pause.
Then he said, very quietly, “But, Bull, what if it turns out we really are brothers?”
“Get over here, you little bastard,” the Bull said.
Red scrambled to comply.
“Be gentle,” he said, perched in the Bull’s lap. “It’s my first time.”
“There’s not a chance in Void that’s true,” the Bull said.
“If I can’t remember it,” Red said sagely, “it doesn’t count.”
The Bull decided that arguing that particular point any further was a waste of time that was best spent on other things.
Later, as they laid pressed together underneath the stars, Red thought it should have been cold, only the Bull turned out to double as a personal heater.
The Iron Bull let out a forlorn sigh.
“I just remembered the panties,” he said. “I was really looking forward to seeing you in ‘em, too.”
Red patted his chest comfortingly.
“Next time, Bull,” he said. “There’s always next time.”
The Bull’s chest shook with an almost silent laugh.
“Well, now I’m thinking about next time, so I may as well take first watch,” the Bull said, sitting up. “Get some sleep, Red.”
“Are you sure?” Red asked.
“Yeah, I’ll wake you in a little bit for your turn.”
“Okay, but don’t go away,” Red said drowsily. “You’re so warm.”
He fell asleep pressed up against the Iron Bull’s thigh. The Bull sat quietly for his watch, carding his fingers through Red’s hair, a satisfied thrum vibrating through his whole body. He thought about the dragon tooth pendants again, a little more softly this time. His gut still churned weirdly, but maybe it wasn’t a bad sort of churning after all.
When it was Red’s turn to keep watch, he slept well, and didn’t wake until Red shoved him in the side at dawn. They had rabbit again for breakfast, and contemplated their next move.
“We should prepare for this Shadows Keep place to be a shitshow,” the Bull said. “Dunno what kind of defences they have, but our first order of business is to figure that out. We’ll probably have to sneak in. Find a cistern and climb up it. Won’t be pleasant, but it’ll work.”
“Can you do that?” Red asked. “Sneak?”
The Bull thought about it.
“Yeah,” he said firmly. “I can sneak when I have to.”
“What’s the plan when we find Etienne?” Red asked. “Beat the shit out of him, ask him some questions, and carry him out of there?”
“Nah,” the Bull said. “Carry him out of there, ask him some questions, then beat the shit out of him. We’re gonna want some time for the last bit and for his head to be clear for the second. It’ll be easier outside his fortress.”
“This is why you’re the brains,” Red said, wagging a rabbit bone in the Bull’s direction.
They cleared up their campsite, hiding the remains of the fire and burying what was left of the rabbits, then took stock of their supplies. They still had two health potions, which they split between them. Red counted his arrows, having supplemented their number with those of the bandits, and weeded out any that looked unreliable. The Bull took out his jar of balm, which, having now discovered the incorrect use for, he correctly applied to his aching knee.
Once everything was in order, they headed out. Shadows Keep would just be two or three hours up the road.
Two or three hours later, they found the road thinning out into a small path that wove its way lazily down to a large pond. At the edge of the pond, at the end of the path, was a small cottage. An old horse was tied to the post of a low white fence that wrapped around its front yard.
The Bull and Red looked at the cottage. Then they looked at each other.
“Maybe it’s further on ahead,” Red said.
“Maybe this is the cover for a secret entrance to the deep roads,” the Bull offered.
“Underground lair,” Red said. “Makes sense.”
They walked down the path toward the cottage. It had a porch swing out front and windchimes made of colored glass and seashells hanging from the eaves. Several bird houses were attached to poles stuck in the yard. A songbird poked its head out of one and sang a lilting little tune.
“Maybe it was further back,” Red said. “We might’ve missed a turn off.”
The Bull pointed to a sign hanging over the cottage’s front door.
‘Shadows Keep Away’ was painted on it in curling, blue letters.
“Andraste’s tits, Bull," Red said. “This isn’t some maleficar’s evil blood magic hideout.”
“If it is, he's doing it wrong,” the Bull agreed.
They stopped before the front door, on a doormat that said ‘COME AS YOU ARE’ in blocky, handwoven letters.
“Are we still sneaking in?” Red asked.
“How?” the Bull asked, with a gesture toward the front of the house.
There were a couple small windows with the curtains drawn that Red might have been able to squeeze through. Each one had a flower box hanging from it, overflowing with tiny pink blossoms.
“Might be a cistern around back,” Red said.
The Iron Bull rolled his eye, then reached out and knocked on the door.
“Just a moment, darling!” a voice called from inside.
A moment later, the door opened to reveal a handsome man with perfectly coiffed blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, and the fading remnants of a charming smile. Half of his face was covered in a very large bruise.
“You must be Delmon Etienne,” the Bull said.
The door slammed shut and locked with a snap.
“C’mon Etienne, we just want to talk!” Red yelled.
“No, no, no, no!” Etienne yelled back.
There was a lot of shuffling inside and what sounded like whispered chanting. Red and the Bull sighed in relief, glad to be back in the familiar realm of fighting and general butchery, and then Bull rammed the door open with his shoulder. Etienne had a staff raised, about to cast a spell, but before he could finish it the Bull had taken him off his feet. Red nocked an arrow in his bow and trained it at Etienne’s face as the Bull held him down.
“Don’t even think about moving,” Red warned him, kicking his staff several feet away.
“Why are you doing this?” Etienne wailed, tears welling in his eyes. “You should have both just wandered off, lost and confused! You shouldn’t even remember who I am! Why are you doing this to us?”
The Bull and Red looked at each other.
“Us?” they echoed.
There was a scream from the doorway.
Red turned and trained his arrow on what looked suspiciously like an Orlesian noblewoman. She was wearing an incredibly impractical gown, a large, elegant white hat, and a delicate silver mask decorated with intricate filigree.
“Delmon, my love!” she cried.
“My love?” the Bull and Red echoed.
“Are you an apostate, too?” Red asked her suspiciously.
She pressed a small, gloved hand to her chest, her lips parted in a trembling ‘o.’
“An apostate?” she gasped. “How dare you! Don’t you know who I am?”
There was an awkward pause.
“No,” the Bull and Red told her.
“They don’t, sweetheart,” Etienne groaned from the floor.
“You hideous oafs!” the woman went on. “You beasts! You morally bankrupt scum! You’re the lowlifes my husband hired, aren’t you? Is there nothing you wouldn’t do for money? Have you no compassion whatsoever?”
“I’m not hideous,” Red said, offended.
“Now hang on just a moment,” the Bull said, easing up a little on poor Etienne. A couple things were clicking into place. “You’re the Duchess.”
Red did a little wobbly math to try to catch up.
“Oh, this is something scandalous, isn’t it?” he said, looking down at Etienne. “Not blood magic at all. Other than what you did to us, I guess.
“I’m not a blood mage!” Etienne defended. “It was a perfectly legitimate confusion spell. They’re my specialty. Let me up, alright? Let me up and I’ll explain everything.”
“No reason you can’t explain from the floor,” the Bull said.
“Please,” the Duchess sobbed. She had produced a handkerchief and had it pressed to her mouth as she leaned against the door, as if on the verge of fainting. “Please, we’ll tell you anything. Give you anything. I don’t have much, but I’ll give you whatever you want.” She reached up and took the silver mask off her face, proffering it in Red’s direction. She was lovely underneath it, young and soft with a smattering of freckles across her dainty nose. She had long lashes and large, weepy eyes. “Please, just let us go. I beg you, sers. I beg you.”
“Aw, geeze,” the Bull said.
He let Etienne up.
As Etienne crawled shakily to his feet, the Duchess rushed to him, holding onto his arm and reaching out to tenderly brush her fingers across the bruised side of his face.
“I came as quickly as I could,” she told him. “I wasn’t able to bring much, none of what we had planned. Please forgive me, darling.”
“You brought yourself,” Etienne told her. “That’s enough. That’s all I need.”
Red scratched the side of his head with the arrow he’d been preparing to shoot them with.
“So, wait,” he said to the Bull. “The Duke hired us not to track down a dangerous and violent apostate, but to take out his rival?”
“Looks like it,” the Bull said.
“I’m not that monster’s rival,” Etienne spat. “And I’m not an apostate, either!”
“Delmon and I have been in love since we were children,” the Duchess said. “When it was discovered he was a mage, they took him away to the circle. We never should have seen each other again, but I couldn’t let us be parted, so I worked my way up in court. I played the Game and managed to gain enough influence to secure Delmon a position there, where we could meet once more. Then Duke Fontaine found out. He blackmailed me…I had to marry him! I never would have seen Delmon again otherwise!”
“That’s awful,” Red said.
“What a piece of work,” the Bull agreed.
“I told her not to do it,” Etienne said. “Just because I didn’t have my freedom, didn’t mean she couldn’t have hers. But she was insistent. Every day I had to bear the knowledge of what she’d done for me, until it became too much. I begged the First Enchanter to transfer me to a circle in Nevarra, far from his influence. I could establish myself there and then send for Natalie. It wouldn’t be the easy life she’d become accustomed to, but we’d be together. We’d be free.”
“But then my husband found out,” Natalie whispered. “He had Delmon arrested on false charges of blood magic. They were going to make him Tranquil.”
“No,” Red gasped.
“That bastard,” the Bull said.
“So you see, we had to run!” she went on. “I slipped him the key to the dungeons. I drugged the guards. We planned to go to Nevarra right away. I was to meet Delmon at an inn in town with money, papers, and other necessities, but then I found out that my husband had hired mercenaries to hunt Delmon down. He was suspicious of me, always watching. I made my escape the moment I could, but I didn’t have the chance to take anything but a horse. When Delmon wasn’t at the inn, I knew right away that he would come here, to this cottage where we used to secretly meet. I only wish I had thought to bring something…anything at all...”
“It doesn’t matter, my love,” Etienne told her again. “We want for nothing, so long as we have each other.”
Red and the Bull took this story in with growing discomfort.
“Hey,” Red said, tugging at the Bull’s arm, “can we have a quick team meeting in the corner?”
The Bull followed him a few feet away, to a small table with a lace doily and a vase filled with bright, yellow daisies. He bent over so that the two of them could talk without being overheard.
“Is there any way we didn’t know about this?” Red hissed.
“Don’t think so,” the Bull whispered back. “I wouldn’t have taken the job without knowing all the details, I don’t think.”
“You’re absolutely sure?” Red asked.
“Pretty sure, yeah,” the Bull said.
“Bull, I’m not feeling great about us right now,” Red admitted quietly. “What kind of people are we? I mean, look at them.”
They both glanced over at the couple. The pair weren’t even looking at Red and the Bull, instead electing to hold each other’s hands and stare mournfully into each other’s eyes with apparently no self-awareness whatsoever.
“Vashedan,” the Bull cursed. “I know. What was I thinking?”
“We can’t take Etienne back,” Red said.
“Obviously,” the Bull said. “Dunno what I’m gonna tell the Duke. I’ll think of something, I guess.” He sighed. “Oh, well. Better get this over with.”
They returned to the couple.
“We’ve magnanimously decided to let you go,” Red announced. “You’re welcome.”
Natalie looked relieved, but Etienne’s face contorted with sudden anger.
“It’s all very well for you to say that now,” he said, levelling a finger at Red, “after everything you’ve done!”
“Me?” Red squeaked.
“Yes, you, you little - !”
“I don’t remember anything, remember?” Red said in defense. “If anything, I should be mad at you!”
“You got what was coming to you, you horrible little sneak-thief,” Etienne said.
“Well, that’s better than ‘knife-ear,’” the Bull said.
“I don’t have any jokes for ‘sneak-thief,’ though,” Red said with a frown. To Etienne, he said, “Why don’t you refresh my memory? What is it that you think I did, exactly?”
Etienne’s face flushed.
“I had just escaped from the Duke’s dungeon and was waiting at the inn for Natalie to meet me, when you came up and insisted I join you for a game of dice,” he said. “I didn’t want to play. I had managed to scrounge up a small sum of money for our escape - nothing I cared to wager, but you were very insistent. I began to worry that you’d cause a scene, so I agreed, hoping a game or two would make you go away. Then it became clear that you were cheating.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound like me at all,” Red said nervously, remembering the loaded dice in his pocket. “Are you sure it wasn’t some other elf? I know you humans think we all look alike.”
“I refused to pay up,” Etienne said, ignoring him. “You gave up and left. Too easily. I should have been suspicious, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I checked my pockets and found - it was all gone. You’d pickpocketed me and taken everything I had. You even took.” His face went bright red. “A token. Of mine. From Natalie.” He cleared his throat and looked askance. “I went after you as soon as I realized, only to be ambushed by you and your brutish friend. I should’ve known it was another of the Duke’s traps. I managed to escape by the skin of my teeth, of course, but I didn't have time to retrieve my things. I passed out twice on the ride here. To make matters worse, I was even accosted by bandits. Everything was almost ruined, thanks to you.”
There was a long silence.
“A token,” Red repeated slowly. “From Natalie.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the panties.
“My underthings!” the Duchess shrieked, turning scarlet. She snatched them from his hands. “How dare you, you - you - ”
Red blinked at her. Etienne glared.
“I’m sure I didn’t mean to take them,” Red said, looking between their fuming faces. “You, uh, have my apologies.” He paused. “They’re very nice panties. I’d have missed them, too.”
They glowered even harder.
“And that’s our cue to leave,” the Bull said, dropping a fistful of coins noisily onto the table. “Here’s a little something for your troubles. By the way,” he added to Etienne. “The whole memory thing - ”
“The spell should fade in a day or two on its own,” he bit out.
“Got it,” the Bull said. “Thanks.”
So saying, he clapped a hand down on Red’s shoulder and marched him back out of the little house before things could get any worse.
“Sorry again,” Red called over his shoulder. “Good luck with the rest of your life.”
“Well, mystery solved,” the Bull said as they stepped out into the afternoon light. “Gotta say, I’m a little disappointed they weren’t yours after all.”
“Me too,” Red said wistfully.
The Iron Bull grinned down at him.
“C’mon, Red,” he said, patting his back. “It’s a long walk back to town. I’ll buy you a new pair when we get there. You can model ‘em for me.”
As they made their way back up the path, past the two horses standing tied up together in the yard, the Bull took out the contract and looked it over once again, eyes lingering on the money promised.
“The Chargers are going to be disappointed,” he said.
“Are they?” Red asked.
They thought about that.
“We’ll explain what went down,” the Bull said. “They’ll understand. It’s only one missed payday.”
“If they take it badly, I’ll just go rob the Duke,” Red decided. “Filch a couple of his valuables.”
“Good idea,” the Bull said. “Sounds like the Duchess probably left some of her unmentionables behind.”
Red blushed and snapped, “Oh, shut up.”
The two of them headed back up the road toward Val Fontaine.
Of course, it could hardly be that simple.
They had only been walking a few minutes when a tremor shook the earth beneath their feet. Up ahead, from between two towering rock formations, a giant with enormous, yellow tusks appeared, dragging its feet slowly behind it.
“Look at the size of it,” the Bull said wonderingly.
“Eurgh, I can smell it from here,” Red said, wrinkling his nose.
The giant raised its head and looked around, sniffing at the air.
“Doesn’t seem to think much of you, either,” the Bull said. He tugged Red behind a nearby boulder. “Better not let it see us.”
The giant didn’t seem to be doing much, but it was doing it very largely, which was of some interest. They peered around the boulder, observing its long, dirty hair, thick knuckles, hunched shoulders, and, of course, the tusks. They were each as big around as one of the Bull’s arms.
“Bigger than yours,” Red noted.
“Don’t say that,” the Bull said, sounding hurt.
“Sorry,” Red said. “Your horns are much better and sexier. No contest.”
They watched it a little longer.
“Think we could take it?” the Bull asked.
“Just the two of us?” Red asked. “I mean, maybe.”
The giant lazily scratched its ass. It picked its nose, stared down at the big, drippy booger it had dug out of its nostril with dull, vacant eyes, and then ate it.
“We could definitely beat it at Wicked Grace,” Red said. “But we only have the two health potions. Is it worth the risk?”
The Iron Bull sighed in disappointment.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, turning away. “Let’s go, before it notices us.”
“Aw, cheer up, Bull,” Red said, patting his arm. “Once we meet back up with the Chargers we’ll go hunt down a whole herd of giants. A dragon, even.”
The Iron Bull’s eyes lit up. He stopped walking and turned to look at Red.
“You really mean that?” he asked. “A dragon?”
Red blinked, a little taken aback. He hadn’t, really, but the look on the Bull’s face was so earnest that Red decided to give the matter his whole, serious consideration.
He imagined a dragon. He imagined firing arrows at a dragon. He imagined a dragon roaring, spraying hot plumes of fire in all directions, the ground shaking beneath it, the wind from its wings cutting across his face like invisible knives. He imagined the Bull, swinging his axe, cleaving straight into the dragon’s flank, the beast going down with a magnificent crash. Red’s heart started beating a little faster in his chest.
“Yes,” he said to the Bull. “And then we’ll have sex right on top of the still smoking corpse.”
The Iron Bull looked like First Day had come early.
“Red - ” he started, a dopey smile stretching his lips.
He cut himself off. The smile fell away.
“Hey, uh, where’s that giant going?” he asked.
Red spun around to watch. The giant was stomping idly in the direction of Shadows Keep.
“Fenhedis,” Red cursed. “‘Keep Away.’ It says, ‘Shadows Keep Away ,’ you big, ugly - ”
“I don’t think it can read,” the Bull said, taking his axe into his hands.
“Okay, Bull, you win,” Red said. “Let’s fight the giant.”
“Here’s the plan,” the Bull said. “I take it out at the knees, you concentrate on the face. Try to blind it if you can.”
“Sounds good,” Red said, already drawing an arrow. “Try not to get stomped on.”
“Yeah, that was implied.”
They darted around the boulder, Red leaping dexterously up onto a nearby outcropping. He whistled sharply, and loosed an arrow just as the giant turned its head. The arrow struck it in the cheek. It didn’t do much damage, but the giant reared back and let out an angry roar, saliva dripping from its massive teeth. It immediately began stomping toward Red, intentions clear: to smash.
The Iron Bull charged forward. He intercepted the giant’s rampaging path, yelling out as he swung his axe at its ankle. The blade sank a few inches into its thick hide. The giant howled, surprised, and looked down to find what had caused this injury. And then to smash it. The Bull moved just in time to avoid the giant’s huge fist, crashing down right where he’d been standing.
Red pulled out three more arrows and fired them in quick succession at the giant’s face. Two of them stuck, drawing blood, but the third hit a tusk and clattered to the rocks below. The Bull meanwhile had brought his axe up and struck at the giant’s other ankle. He’d now made two deep gouges in its legs, but the creature was far from disabled. It swept a hand across the ground, trying to knock the Bull away, and then, missing, it brought a foot up and stomped hard.
The Bull dodged the foot, leapt forward as the giant searched for him in the rising dust, brought his axe down, and sliced its big toe straight off.
The giant let out an earth-quivering cry of pain. Red held himself steady as the dust shuddered beneath his feet and fired an arrow straight into the back of its open maw.
The giant’s cry broke off and choked around the projectile lodged in the soft tissue of the back of its mouth. It reached up to touch its trembling throat and tried desperately to swallow. After a few gasping, aborted attempts, it finally managed, and its eye focused on Red once more. It started toward him a second time.
“Oh, no you don’t!” the Bull said, and swung at the nearest ankle once again.
Torn between Red and the Bull, the giant was growing angrier and more confused. It thrashed and roared, stomping its feet wildly and banging down on the ground with both its fists. One hand managed to swipe the Bull, sending him tumbling.
“Bull!” Red screamed.
He furiously shot at the giant, turning its shoulder and the side of its face into a pin cushion. As the Bull climbed back to his feet, the giant picked up a boulder the size of Shadows Keep, hefted it into his arms, and threw it toward Red.
Red scrambled to dodge, and had to throw himself bodily from his perch to avoid being crushed. The boulder slammed down. Rocks the size of his head went flying and bouncing past. Red blinked stupidly at the house-sized boulder beside him. It had missed him by inches.
“Red!” the Bull yelled from somewhere through a thick cloud of dust.
Red hissed in pain. He pushed himself slowly up from the ground. His bow had managed to survive this time, but his leg screamed. Blood dripped down his calf, through a large tear in his pants, and a cut on his forehead dripped into his face. He could barely keep himself upright. But he had to. He was the brawn, after all.
He gritted his teeth and fired an arrow straight into the single, enormous eye of the giant looming above him.
It shrieked and reached up to scratch at the wound in an unknowing mirror of the bandit Red had blinded just the day before.
The Bull let out a triumphant shout and Red watched through the settling dust as his axe hacked at one of the giant’s ankles once again. This time, it went deep, finding bone and cracking it.
The giant wailed, sinking involuntarily to one knee. It was mad with pain, smashing its fists about with blind fury, tossing rocks without aiming. Red fired arrow after arrow at its face, not stopping to think about the pain in his leg. The Bull’s axe drove home into the giant’s other ankle, and it toppled onto its side in a shuddering collision with the ground.
Pure adrenaline kept Red up as the Bull swung his axe into the giant’s chest, cracking the rib cage. He fired until he was out of arrows, trying to keep its attention and tusks away from the Bull.
At last, the giant let out one final, pained wail, and dropped its head lifelessly back onto the ground.
The Bull hooted victoriously.
His leg was broken, he realized. The bone wasn’t exposed but he could feel it shifting beneath his skin, the two snapped ends grinding against each other. His ribs had probably been bruised, too, now that he had the time to notice each individual pain in his body. The agony was excruciating. He grunted as he reached out to touch his leg and then immediately wished he hadn’t. The whole limb was already swelling up.
“Fuck,” he spat.
Suddenly, the Iron Bull was at his side.
“Your head - ,” he started, sounding worried.
“It’s just a cut,” Red said. “It’s my leg that’s broken. You’ll have to set it before I can take a potion. Do it fast, please.”
“Okay, on three.”
He did it on two.
Red clenched his teeth and let out a small whine, then immediately grabbed the health potion from his belt, uncorked it, and downed the whole thing in a swallow. The pain started to ebb away into a dull, full-body throb. Then a second vial was suddenly at his lips.
“What about you?” he asked, trying to push the Bull’s hand away.
“I’m fine,” the Bull said. “Just take it, Red.”
Red clicked his tongue in annoyance, but complied.
The pain leeched out of him completely.
“Damn,” he said, staring up at the sky. He turned his head and looked at the Bull. “Can’t believe we took down a giant, though. That was pretty badass.”
The Bull eyed him with concern a moment longer, and then, finding everything in order, the concern melted into pride.
“Yeah, it was,” he said roughly. He offered Red a hand, helping him to his feet. “It’s too bad we don’t have a way to carry the tusks back to town. I bet they sell at a premium.”
Red studied the dead creature, hands on his hips.
“Probably for the best,” he said. “It smells even worse up close.”
The Bull had turned to shield his eyes against the sun and squint at the cottage.
“Looks like our star crossed lovers noticed what was happening and made a run for it. The horses are gone.”
“Oh, good,” Red said, wiping several days’ worth of dirt, sweat, and blood from his brow. “We can wash up in the pond. I wanted to ask if we could before, but Etienne looked like he might take the chance to electrocute the water.”
The Iron Bull laughed.
“And whose fault is that?” he asked.
“He made me sound like some kind of con artist,” Red complained as they picked their way back down to the cottage. “I was just being clever, leading him into our trap.” He turned his head and looked at the Bull. “No, I bet it was your idea.”
The Bull hummed and said, for a second time, “We make a good team.”
They headed straight for the pond, stripping off their clothes as they went. Red sank into the cool water with a sigh of relief. A moment later, he was spluttering and thrashing as the Bull dunked his head under the surface.
“Betrayal!” Red shouted as he came back up, spitting water. “Fen’harel take you, Bull!”
“Just trying to help you get clean,” the Bull said with a grin. “You’re covered in grime.”
“I don’t need your kind of help,” Red said, jutting his chin out and wading out of the Bull’s reach.
Red watched the Bull scrubbing bandit and giant blood from his impressive pectorals. He flushed when the Bull caught his eye with a knowing look.
“Yes, alright,” Red mumbled, and waded a little closer.
They took a very long bath.
By the time they had finished, it was late afternoon. They poked around the cottage for a bit, looking for anything of use, but it appeared that Etienne and Natalie had already cleaned it out. They did find an old pair of pants to replace Red’s ruined pair, but the rest of the house’s contents consisted mainly of pointless baubles and worthless odds and ends.
“We could always stay here for the day and head out tomorrow, I guess,” the Bull said. “Bed’s pretty small but we could make it work.”
Red looked at the bed.
“All I see when I look at that thing,” he said, “is years of Natalie and Etienne making secret, forbidden love and whispering sweet Orlesian nothings in each other’s ears. And the panties.”
The Iron Bull also looked at the bed.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “Let’s get out of here.”
They left the loveshack and spent most of the rest of the day walking.
It was getting late in the evening, and they had just passed the spot where they had spent the previous night, when a cloud of dust appeared in the distance, the sign of many horses headed their way at high speed.
“You know, this road gets a lot more traffic than you’d expect,” Red said, watching it approach. “I guess that explains why the bandits set up out here. Didn’t really seem all that profitable at the time.”
“I think it’s an unusually busy weekend,” the Bull said. “Here, step off the road a minute.”
They hid behind an outcropping of rocks and waited for the procession to pass. There were seven or eight horses, almost all of them ridden by heavily armed and armored men in the colorful livery of a noble house. The only one who wasn’t armored wore what looked like expensive clothing and a mask that was - from what they could glimpse as the group went quickly past - remarkably similar to the one Natalie had worn.
“Yup,” the Bull said once they were gone. “Just like I thought. That must’ve been the Duke.”
“Do you think Natalie and Etienne will get away alright?” Red asked.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” the Bull said. “They had a pretty big head start and Natalie seems like a capable lady. She did say something about drugging the Duke’s guards. Pretty ballsy.”
Red hummed thoughtfully.
“Do you think the Duke knows we let them go?”
The Iron Bull grimaced.
“Hard to say. We might be able to play it off as incompetence. It’s not great for our reputation, either way. Might have to look for work somewhere else for a while. Ferelden, maybe, or north.”
“Damn,” Red said.
“Well, what can you do?” the Bull sighed. “Can’t fuck around with love. That’s asking for trouble.”
Red snorted and gave him a light shove.
“You sap,” he teased.
“It’s not sappiness, it’s common sense,” the Bull defended. “Orlesians take that shit seriously. I mean, look at us with our lost memories. That’s living proof. Anyway.” He turned off the road and began walking out into the rocky scrubland. “We’d better stay off the road the rest of the way back. It’ll be awkward if the Duke catches up with us and we have to answer any uncomfortable questions.”
Red followed after him. As they walked, he started whistling a jaunty tune and leapt nimbly from rock to rock.
“What’s got you so cheerful?” the Bull asked.
“Nothing,” Red said with a grin. “I mean, look at us, though. We’re having a regular adventure. Sneaky plots to capture runaway bounties, hair-raising battles with bandits and giants, shocking, romantic plot twists, hot sex under the stars. All that’s missing is - ”
The Iron Bull blinked at where Red had been just a moment ago, blindsided, then rushed over. A hole had opened up between the rocks where Red was stepping, dust and pebbles trickling into some enormous cavern hidden down below.
“Red!” the Bull called. He began pushing at a boulder, trying to make the gap wider so that he could see. “Red!”
“Ow,” Red’s voice drifted up from out of the dark. “I’m okay.”
The boulder finally shifted under the weight of the Bull’s shoulder and what remained of the dim evening light flooded into an old stone chamber. Red had fallen six or seven feet onto his ass in front of an enormous, crumbling owl statue with bowls filled with mouldering flowers sitting at its feet.
“For the record,” Red said, wincing as he stood up, “I was about to say ‘a climactic cliffside duel.’ Not ‘a lost Dalish temple of Falon’Din.’”
“Is that what this is?” the Bull asked.
“Yeah, the owl’s a whole thing,” Red said. “Oh, there’s a door over here. You think there’s treasure down here?”
“Falon’Din’s the one for the dead, right?”
“Yeah, so what?”
Red had wandered out of view, probably to poke his head through the doorway in search of loose valuables he could pocket. The Iron Bull sighed.
“ So maybe we shouldn’t go poking around in sacred elvish tombs,” the Bull said. “Who knows what kind of weird magic shit they put in this place. We’ve already got more than enough of that going on. Come back over here and I’ll pull you out.”
“Aw, Bull, are you scared of the dark?” Red teased. “I’ll protect you, I promise. Let’s just take a quick look, and if anything seems weird, we’ll bail. We did just dump a big payday, and it’s starting to sound like we might be out of work for a bit. We could probably use the funds.”
The Bull sighed again, but leveraged himself carefully down into the chamber. In the meantime, Red had found a torch hanging on one of the walls and lit it with some flint and steel he’d pocketed off a dead bandit. Flickering light and the smell of burning dust and smoke filled the cramped space.
“This place is really old,” Red said, examining the worn carvings in what turned out to be a hallway. He squinted into the dark, looking both left and right. “And big. How deep do you think it goes?”
“Hopefully not too deep,” the Bull said, ducking to fit through the small doorframe after him. “The bigger it is, the more likely we’re gonna find something unpleasant.”
“Hey, we can take it,” Red said. “We just killed a giant, remember?”
“And weren’t you the one who tried to talk me out of it?” the Bull asked. “We also used up our potions, and you only scavenged like ten arrows.”
“What can I say - I’m feeling adventurous,” Red said. “Something about an old, hidden tomb really gets my fingers itching. I just want to touch everything.”
“Do me a favor and don’t.”
They wandered down the hallway, Red pausing now and then to look in through doorways at rooms filled with skeletons resting in deep shelves cut into the stone walls. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of valuables aside from dull, rusted swords and armor that was so brittle it broke apart at the touch.
“I was really imagining a lot more shiny stuff when I suggested we come down here,” Red said.
He opened the lid on a vase to look inside, wrinkled his nose when he found ashes and what looked like teeth, and replaced the lid with a clatter.
“Turns out the temple of death mainly has dead people in it,” the Bull said. “Fancy that.”
“I don’t know why I had such a glamorous image of graverobbing in my head,” Red said. “Well, not every idea’s a winner. Let’s go back. I’m starting to get hungry.”
He turned to go, but the Bull caught his arm. As Red had moved, the flicker of light from the torch had glinted off of something in the dark.
The Bull stepped forward, bent down, and picked up a shiny gold coin from the floor.
“Hell-o,” Red said, coming up alongside him. “What do we have here?”
“This is old,” the Bull said, running his thumb across the worn ridges to remove a thick layer of dirt and reveal a carved dragon head. “Ancient Tevinter, I’d say.”
He flipped it through the air toward Red, who caught it and held it up to the torch to take a look himself.
“Do you think we might find more?” Red asked.
“If there’s one thing I know about Tevinter,” the Bull said, “it’s that its coin and blood both come by the gallon.”
“That’s pleasant,” Red said. “Any idea how you know that?”
“Think it’s just common sense. C’mon. Let’s keep looking.”
They continued on down the hall, which began to widen, then dipped downward into a broad set of low stairs. At the bottom was an enormous stone archway. It gleamed in the torchlight, rimmed by mosaic tiles of dark, tarnished silver, red, and blue. Over the top, stone letters had been carved in a looping script.
“That’s elvish, right?” the Bull said. “What’s it say?”
“Banal’ras’an Te’las,” Red read. “The place where the shadows are kept.”
They looked at each other and said, as one, “Shadows Keep.”
“No way,” Red said.
“I guess that explains why there’d be a sign marking the way to some little cottage hideaway from the highway,” the Bull said. “It wasn’t marking the way to the cottage at all. Probably no one remembers why the area is called Shadows Keep and they just kept using the name out of habit.”
“Should we take a look?” Red asked. “Could be dangerous.”
They stared through the dark archway. Something just beyond seemed to gleam invitingly.
“In for a penny,” the Bull said.
“In for a crown,” Red finished, flipping the coin and catching it again.
Hesitantly, they stepped forward.
As they did so, the light moved with them and sent the shadows dancing backward into an enormous dark room. A landscape of gold was unveiled before them. The room was piled high with coins, statues, jewelry, colorful gems that caught and sparkled with the shine, and countless other valuable objects. There was even what looked like a small, leather-bound book half-buried in one nearby pile. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, the cavernous sepulcher was filled to bursting with treasure, all of it glittering as if laughing with some secret joy.
“Whoa,” the Bull said.
“Now this,” Red said, doing a small turn, “is what I’m talking about.”
“I’m starting to come around to your way of thinking about sacred elvish tombs,” the Bull said. He scooped up a fistful of coins from a nearby tower and let it slip back through his fingers, the sliding metallic sound not unlike the ringing of bells. “Music to my ears.”
“Let’s see if we can find some kind of chest or something to carry stuff in,” Red said. “We’re definitely coming back for seconds.”
Red moved further into the room, only to come up short. The edge of the light had caught on a set of stone steps, where it was reflected back at him in dozens of small shards of glass. Moving closer, he found himself standing before a round dias at the center of the room. Perched on top of it was the enormous golden frame of a broken mirror, its remains scattered all around.
“What’s that?” the Bull asked, noticing his pause.
“I don’t know,” Red said quietly. “But I have the strangest feeling about it.”
He reached out to touch it, but the Bull caught his wrist.
“Spooky old mirrors that give you strange feelings are absolutely the sort of weird magic shit you shouldn’t be touching in ancient abandoned tombs,” the Bull said.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Red said, dropping his hand.
“That on the other hand,” the Bull said, pointing to an enormous red ruby lying on the ground just in front of the mirror, “looks like the perfect thing to touch.”
He reached out and grabbed it.
The room around them began to shake.
“Aw, come on,” the Bull said.
Dust rained down on them from the ceiling and coins began to slide down the enormous piles in loud cascades. A golden crown dotted with sapphires rolled down a nearby hill and bounced past their feet. Red reached out to snatch it, then tugged the Bull by the arm toward the archway.
“Time to go!”
“Are you sure this isn’t an ancient elvish temple of irony?” the Bull asked as they rushed out of the treasure room and up the stairs.
The stone walls were crumbling around them, the thick roots of trees jutting down as dirt began to pour through cracks in the ceiling and into the hall around them.
“No, it’s definitely a temple for the dead,” Red said.
They had just passed the first tomb doorway. The dead bodies had started to sit up.
“Perfect,” the Bull said. “I guess they don’t like us touching their shit!”
He pocketed the ruby and pulled his axe off of his back. Red put the crown on his head and began beating back groping, rotting hands with the torch.
The best thing that could be said about the situation was that the army of corpses pouring in at them from all sides was slow, crumbling, and just as susceptible to falling rocks as the Bull and Red were. The Iron Bull’s axe cleaved through skeletons like paper while Red set anything on fire that he could reach. The end result, of course, was that the hallway was not only caving in and filled with undead, but also on fire.
At least they could see the way forward.
Around them, the temple was collapsing bit by bit. Boulders and dirt filled the hallway behind them. The earth shook and trembled, nearly throwing them from their feet with every step.
“It’s just occurred to me,” Red said, ducking the clumsy swordstrike of a groaning skeleton, “that these could be my direct ancestors. I have no way of knowing. We could be cutting down my great great grandfathers as we speak.”
“Grandma tried to kill us first!” the Bull said, shoving a corpse to the ground and crushing its skull with his boot. “Worry about it later!”
They scrambled for the exit, nearly passed it by mistake, and then had to backtrack and fight their way into the small room with the owl statue. It had toppled over in the quakes, and they clambered up it and through the hole in the ceiling. The undead climbed after them, a seething horde of empty eye sockets and hungry mouths. But the ground was still shaking, shifting, and as they darted away, back toward the road, they looked over their shoulders and saw a massive expanse of scrubland dropping away.
At last, panting, they came to a halt not far from where they had camped the previous night. The sun had set and the moon was fat and round and bright in the sky, casting its glow across the empty plains. Whatever undead had tried to follow them had been sucked back down into the dark.
A quiet fell, broken only by their breathing.
Tentatively, they stepped toward the edge of the sinkhole where the temple had just been. The gaping maw that had taken its place was vast and dark, not even the bright moonlight illuminating its depths. Red dropped the torch into it. It sank and sank and sank and sank until at last it winked out of sight, never seeming to reach a bottom.
The Bull whistled.
“All that gold,” Red said mournfully. “All that precious, precious gold.”
“No more side trips,” the Bull said, standing up and backing away. “Straight back to Val Fontaine. No more complications.”
“There was so much money down there, Bull,” Red said. “I didn’t even get to strip naked and dive into a pile like I was going for a swim.”
“Eh, I bet it wouldn’t have been that much fun. All that metal digging into your sensitive bits.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
“Yeah, I am. Don't take it too hard. I bet there will be plenty more piles of gold. Loads more, probably. Mountains of the stuff.”
“It’s not working. You’re terrible at this.”
“I know what will cheer you up,” the Bull said. He pulled the ruby out of his pocket and held it up to the light. “See, we got something, at least. It’s the color of your hair. And you got that crown, didn’t you?”
Red took the crown off his head and examined it. It was very expensive looking. He glanced at the Bull.
“Are you saying you grabbed that dumb ruby because it looked like my hair?” he asked.
“Well, maybe,” the Bull said, breaking eye contact. “Let’s not go around making crazy accusations.”
Red’s lips twitched.
“Bend down for a second,” he said.
The Iron Bull obediently bent his neck. Red reached up and slipped the crown over one of his horns.
“There you are,” Red said. “The Iron Bull: Emperor of Orlais.” He put his hands on the Bull’s cheeks and dragged him in for a kiss.
The Bull hummed happily into it, tucking a strand of Red’s hair out of his face. Then he pulled back.
“I don’t know about you, my lord,” he said, tossing the ruby and catching it, “but I’m starving.”
Red managed to bring down a whole snoufleur with the handful of arrows he had left from the giant fight and they feasted like kings. Or emperors. There was no pretense now - Red sat sidled up to the Bull as they ate, and curled comfortably into his side when he was done.
He traced the constellations in the sky with his eyes, somehow so familiar, even though he still couldn’t remember where he would have learned them or why he might care. As he did so, the Iron Bull watched him, something warm and heavy blooming in his gut. He turned the ruby over in his hand and studied the way it held the starlight in its dark, nearly opaque heart. It reminded him of fire, and of blood, and of something much sweeter.
He felt, he thought, content.
“Red,” he suddenly said, startling Red out of a drowsy near-sleep. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”
Red sat up a little, awareness coming back to him all at once.
“What?” he asked, scrunching his brows together. “Did you remember something?”
“It’s more what I don’t remember,” the Bull said.
He reached for his coin purse and slipped the ruby inside. Then he pulled the dragon tooth necklaces out.
“I knew you knew what they were, you liar,” Red said fondly.
“Yeah, you caught me,” the Bull said with a small smile. He held the necklaces in his palm, running his thumb over the broken halves of the tooth. “It’s a Qunari tradition, a pretty serious one. When two Qunari...”
He trailed off, suddenly nervous.
“I do know about the birds and the bees,” Red offered, filling the empty space that the Bull’s hesitation had left.
“Right, well,” the Bull said. “It’s complicated, but the Qun doesn’t really have the birds and the bees in the same way other cultures do.”
“That seems unlikely,” Red said. “How do the flowers get pollinated?”
“Manually,” the Bull said. “And with careful planning.”
Red made a face as he tried to make that fit with what he knew about the Iron Bull. The two pieces clanked awkwardly against each other, reluctant to form a bigger picture.
“But you're a Tal Vashoth,” he finally said, giving up. “You don’t follow the Qun.”
“Yeah,” the Bull said. His brows creased. Then he shook his head. “Well, it’s a tradition, that’s what I’m saying. You take a dragon tooth and you split it in two, and then you give one half to your kadan.”
“Kadan?” Red echoed.
“It literally means ‘the center of the chest,’” the Bull said. “But it’s more like, ‘where the heart lies.’ It’s a term of - commitment.”
“Love,” Red translated.
“Yeah, I guess, but it’s more than that,” the Bull said. “Love’s too vague, can mean too many different things. Kadan is certainty, purpose. It’s knowing what’s at the center of yourself and naming it. The dragon tooth is a reminder, so that no matter where you go, you take your center with you. Your heart.”
Red sat up so that he could look at the Iron Bull fully.
“So why do you have them?” he asked.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to work out,” the Bull said. “Best I can figure, I was planning to give it to someone.”
There was a long, loaded silence.
“I suppose I probably would’ve known who it was,” Red said slowly. “One of the Chargers, maybe.”
The Bull gave him an exasperated look.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Red said, looking away abruptly. “You can’t just - guess.”
“I’m not guessing.”
“Yes, you are,” Red said. “Based on what? A couple of days. Some good fighting and sex. Okay, great fighting and sex. Hard to say which has been better, we can argue about it later. So what? It doesn’t mean we’re - Qunari married. We could still be brothers, Bull, don’t think I’ve forgotten!”
He knew he was babbling, but he couldn’t make himself stop, could only turn away and hide his face.
“Red,” the Bull said.
“And what if we remember everything and you change your mind?” Red went on. “What if that’s why you had them, because you were going to, but you changed your mind? What if you wake up in a couple days and you realize that you don’t feel that way at all? What then, Bull?”
“Kadan,” the Bull said.
Red fell silent, back turned completely.
“I can’t tell you how I’ll feel in a couple of days or what I’ll know,” the Bull said. “All I can tell you is what I feel and know right now.” He held out one of the necklaces to Red.
Red looked at it and swallowed.
“Take it, Red,” the Bull said. “Please.”
Red took it.
He had held very few things over the last few days, and some of them had been pretty spectacular indeed, but somehow he knew that this was the most precious object he’d ever held in his entire life. He thought his hand might be shaking a little bit. Quickly, he slung the leather thong around his neck, letting the heavy pendant rest against his chest. He could feel his heart beating against it through his coat.
Red turned to face the Iron Bull, and couldn’t think of a single thing to say. The Bull looked back at him, with that same pride he’d had right after the giant fight. He held his own half up.
“Will you tie it on for me?” he asked.
Red bit his lip and nodded, taking the pendant and wrapping the cord around the Bull’s neck. He tied it carefully, tightly, using the best knot he knew. When he was done, he dropped his hands but kept his arms around the Bull’s shoulders, pressing his face into his chest.
He could hear the Bull’s heart. It sounded familiar.
The Iron Bull placed his hand on Red’s back, large and gentle and warm. With his other hand, he tilted Red’s chin up and kissed him for a long, long time.
In the morning, they set off for Val Fontaine, carefully picking their way back parallel to the road. They saw no sign of bandits, dukes, giants, or ancient ruins on their journey back to the highway. It was midday when they rejoined the thoroughfare, finding it much busier than it had been the last time they’d walked it.
They passed carts laden with goods that were pulled by heavy draft horses, messengers trotting by on panting steeds, groups of peasants who huddled together and eyed the Bull and Red with open suspicion. There was even a group of Chanters - those pilgrims who only ever recited the Chant of Light - whose voices rose in an eerie chorus of some verse that sounded more worried than devoted. After a fifth messenger whipped by them, going at a canter that itched toward gallop, the Iron Bull made a deep considering noise.
“I wonder if something big’s happened,” he said.
Around a bend in the road up ahead came a whole unit of Chevaliers, moving at a quick march. Red and the Bull froze. But the troops marched by and vanished back around another turn without stopping to even sneer at them with their usual Orlesian disdain.
“That was the Empress’s army, wasn’t it?” Red said. “You don’t think Duke Fontaine is sending them to track down Natalie and Etienne, do you?”
“I doubt it,” the Bull said. “Otherwise why would he have to hire mercenaries in the first place? Hey, you.” He fell back to address one of the Chanters keeping pace not far behind them. “Any idea what’s going on?”
“I heard from the east a great cry as men who were beasts warred with their brothers,” the Chanter moaned. “Tooth and claw against blade and bow, until one could no longer be told from the other.”
The Bull looked forward at Red. Red shrugged.
“Okay, thanks,” the Bull said. “I think.” He rejoined Red. “Civil war, maybe? Brothers at war with each other?”
“No idea,” Red said. “Guess we’ll have to ask when we get to town.”
“Maybe the Chargers will know,” the Bull said. “Hopefully it won’t be hard to find them. We’ll try the taverns first, of course.”
Red hummed, and plucked at the dragon tooth pendant around his neck.
“This dragon tooth,” he said, holding it aloft. “Do you think it came from a dragon we killed together? Us and the Chargers?”
“Damn, I hope so,” the Bull said. “Wish I could remember.”
“I can’t wait to remember everything we’ve gotten up to,” Red said with a smile. “If the last few days have been any clue, we must have some great stories.”
“Heh, yeah, you’re probably right about that.”
“How do you think we met?” Red asked. “I’ll bet you a royal it was in prison.”
“You think I’ve done time?” the Bull asked.
“I didn’t say you were the one in prison,” Red said. He spread his hands in front of him, as if picturing the scene. “There I was in lock-up. My many successful and attractive crimes had finally caught up to me, but not for long. I was just about to pickpocket the guard’s ring of keys and escape, when in strolled a fearsome and handsome Qunari, a trussed up criminal in each of his enormous hands. ‘I’m here to collect the bounty,’ he said, throwing each one into an open cell. ‘Where’s my money?’
“As the dumbstruck prison guards scrambled to comply, I leaned out toward the Qunari and said, ‘I’ve got another bounty for you, if you’re willing. Help me reduce my sentence and I’ll give you a reward you’ll never forget.’” Red broke his narrative to turn to the Bull and add, “The joke there, in case it went over your head, is that you’ve now forgotten.”
“Generally speaking most things have trouble clearing the horns, but thanks,” the Bull said.
“And you tried to claim you don’t like overdone jokes,” Red said. “Anyway, like I was saying. That’s when you ripped the bars straight out of the wall - ”
“Yes, it was extremely arousing.”
“This is starting to sound like a bad smut novel.”
“Only starting to? That’s what I was going for in the first place.”
The Iron Bull snorted, but he was smiling fondly.
A short time later, they finally arrived in Val Fontaine, which turned out to be a small but bustling city clustered around a sprawling mansion, no doubt belonging to the Duke. It didn’t lack for taverns, so they spent quite a while wandering the streets, looking for anyone who looked like they might be a sword for hire.
It was in the third place they checked that they finally found out what the army had been about.
“There was an attack near Montsimmard,” the barkeep told them, leaning in and dropping his voice. “They say the undead rose there last night - sat right up in their graves. Don’t know if I believe it, but some important general came through this morning and conscripted almost all the men under Duke Fontaine’s command. There was a big fuss about it. The Duke had just come back from a manhunt for some dangerous apostate and didn’t want to let them go until the criminal was found.”
Red and the Bull looked at each other warily.
“The undead, huh?” the Bull said as they left the tavern.
“You don’t think…” Red began nervously.
“Nah,” the Bull said. “It’s just a coincidence. Undead uprisings are bound to happen from time to time when you live on top of a mass elvish grave.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Red said. “Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe it just happened to start while we were in Shadows Keep, completely by coincidence, and none of that was our fault, either.”
They walked on for a little while longer. The Bull pulled the ruby out of his coin purse and squinted down at it.
“I think we should probably make it a priority to get rid of this thing,” he said. “Just in case.”
“Just in case,” Red agreed. “But keep the crown. It looks good on you.”
The Bull blinked, then reached up and touched the crown, still looped around his left horn.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I guess that’s why people have been staring all day. Sorta thought it was just that they’d never seen a Qunari before.”
“No, I’m pretty sure they’re still all racists,” Red said. “Someone in that last bar grabbed my ass and tried to give me their beer order.”
The Bull drew up short.
“And you didn’t punch him in the face?”
“Couldn’t see who it was through the crowd.”
“Well clearly the solution, kadan,” the Bull said, turning back around and heading for the bar, “was to just start breaking chairs over heads until someone confessed.”
Red grinned and followed after him.
One short but satisfying tavern brawl later, they spilled back onto the street, permanently banned from Halamshirale, but in high spirits. With a name like that, it wasn’t much of a loss.
They rounded a corner to find the next bar and nearly collided with a group of rag-tag warriors in mismatched gear. Their expressions had been tense and worried, but turned surprised as they saw who was standing before them. Then, almost as one, they let out a collective sigh and a perceptible tension leaked from their stances.
“There you are, Chief,” a young man in armor at the front of the group said, sounding both annoyed and relieved in the same breath. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”
“We were just about to try the lake spot,” a smiling elf with vallaslin said.
“Where the Void did you go?” a dwarf demanded.
“What happened to the plan?” someone else asked.
“Are you - are you wearing a fucking crown?”
Red and the Bull exchanged grins. It seemed like they’d found the Chargers.
“Let’s just say there were some complications,” the Bull said. “What was the plan?”
“What was the - ” the young man said. Slowly, with exasperation, he told the Bull: “You track down Etienne’s hiding place in town, give him a heads up about the contract, offer him a bit of coin and advice to get the lovebirds clear, then come back and bluff that he escaped in the opposite direction. Did you seriously forget? It’s been days!”
“Well that’s a relief,” Red said. “I was really worried about our moral character for a moment back there.”
The group looked at him curiously.
“Who’s this?” a bare-faced elf asked suspiciously.
Red and the Bull froze, their smiles fixing in place.
Then their smiles dropped altogether. An ominous feeling fell over them both.
“Hang on a second,” the Bull said slowly. “Let me clarify a couple of things. You guys are the Chargers - ”
“Yes, obviously,” the man at the front said tersely. “Who else would we be?”
“Did you hit your head, Chief?” the first elf asked in amusement.
“ - and this is…” the Bull gestured to Red.
There was a pause while the Chargers all looked at him, then each other. They shrugged.
“Never seen him before in my life,” one of the humans standing at the back said.
Red blinked at the Chargers. Then he blinked up at the Bull, who looked thrown. Red blinked hard. He was suddenly blinking a lot.
“You don’t know me,” he said flatly to the Chargers.
“...Should we?” the man at the front asked.
“He,” Red said, pointing at the Iron Bull, “doesn’t know me.”
“I guess you must’ve met in the last couple days,” the man confirmed. The annoyance had leaked from his confusion and turned to awkwardness, clearly sensing something in Red’s tone and expression that spelled trouble. “Unless he’s been keeping you a secret all these years. I mean…” He trailed off, glancing past Red’s shoulder at the Bull.
Red felt a rush of humiliation so profound he almost didn’t feel it at all.
He blinked a few more times.
“Right,” he said roughly. “Okay. I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
Then he turned and started walking quickly away.
The Iron Bull came after him.
“Kadan!” the Bull called.
Red ignored him.
“Kadan?” he heard the Chargers echo behind him.
Red picked up his pace. He walked as fast as he could without outright running, but even so he was no match for the Iron Bull’s long strides. A large hand wrapped around his arm, drawing him up short.
“Kadan - ”
“I’m not your kadan!” Red snapped at him. His whole face was hot and he was trembling with embarrassment, and anger, and something else. Something worse. “Don’t you get it, you idiot?” He wrenched his arm free. “You made a mistake.” He tore his gaze away from the Bull’s stunned face. “I’m not your anything. I never was.”
Red reached up with a jerky hand and ripped the pendant from his neck.
“You weren’t carrying this for me,” he said, holding it out. “You just thought you were. How could it be mine, when we’ve never even met? You were carrying it for someone else and I.” He sucked in air. “I stole it.”
“Red, I don’t know what’s going on,” the Bull started gently, “but - ”
“Take it,” Red said, his arm shaking. “Take it back.”
“Red, please,” the Bull said.
“Please,” Red said.
When the Bull didn’t move, Red dropped the pendant on the ground at the Bull’s feet. His hand was shaking so hard he couldn’t have held onto it a moment longer, anyway. Then he turned and walked away.
This time, the Iron Bull didn’t follow.
Red walked for a long time.
He didn't pay much attention to where he was going at first, driven by nothing more than the need to get away. His first instinct had been to find a bar and get trashed, but he couldn't stand the idea of sticking around in Val Fontaine long enough to accidentally run into the Iron Bull or the Chargers again, so he hit the road and tried not to think about what was waiting at its end.
It wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair.
That was all he could think, over and over again.
It was as if the last few days had all been one big joke. A trick. One that he should never have fallen for. How could it possibly have been true? He still couldn’t remember anything, but it didn’t really seem to matter. He’d always been alone. Remembering wouldn’t make a difference, and forgetting shouldn’t have made one either.
What an idiot he’d been.
But it still wasn’t fair.
The Iron Bull had the Chargers. He was a great mercenary captain who got big, expensive contracts with nobles and then blew them just because it was the right thing to do. He had a whole group of friends that he roamed the countryside killing bandits and dragons and who knew what else with. On top of all that, somewhere out there, he had a kadan. Someone he loved. Someone he was carrying a dragon tooth necklace for. Someone who wasn’t Red at all. Maybe it had even been that young man with the Chargers. He’d been cute.
And what did Red have? Nothing. Nobody. He had some stupid carved halla and some stupid tattoos and that was it. He didn’t even have a name.
The elf laughed a little, and choked on his own tears.
Eventually he found himself standing at the crossroad between Lake Celestine and Shadows Keep. He considered the sign for a moment, then turned and took the left path. The bleak scenery would fit his mood. Maybe he could go back and find that sunken temple, figure out a way to climb down. Drown his sorrows in piles and piles of potentially cursed treasure.
But he walked more slowly now, exhausted from having feelings.
This is why we try not to have those, the elf thought to himself. This is what always happens.
That was when he realized his memory was starting to trickle back.
At first it was just little things - snippets of him drinking in taverns and walking down roads. He remembered being much younger, hunting halla out in the woods. He remembered lying in grassy fields, staring up at the stars, bathing under waterfalls and whistling fragments of old songs. He remembered a lot of things, but in all of his memories he was alone.
He had been Dalish at one point. He’d lived with Clan Lavellan, north, in the Free Marches. But his parents had died when he was a small child and he’d never really fit in after that, always feeling more like a burden and an obligation than a member of the clan. No one had ever been outright cruel to him, even when he caused trouble - which he often did - but he hadn’t really been welcomed either.
Then one day he’d just decided to leave. It had been so easy. Leaving your clan was supposed to be hard, like ripping an arm off, but Mahanon had just packed up his few possessions - his bow and the little carved halla - and walked off into the woods. No one had even come after him. If they had, they hadn’t tried very hard.
After that, he’d just...wandered. Here and there through the Free Marches, then south, across the Waking Sea. At first he worked odd jobs to pay his way, but soon it became easier just to steal. He learned how to cheat when he gambled, how to cut purse strings and pick locks, how to knock a crowd out with sleeping powder or take down bigger men with poison.
He even remembered what had happened with Etienne now. Mahanon really had just meant to con a man who looked too rich to be sitting in an inn like that. He'd been honestly surprised when the mage caught up with him on the road the next morning.
There had been some confusion when the Iron Bull appeared at the moment Etienne confronted Mahanon. He’d been there to warn Etienne, Mahanon now realized. But Etienne had been afraid and angry and he’d seen the Bull approach and assumed it was an ambush. He’d lashed out, attacked them both, and Mahanon and the Bull had started working together to defend themselves solely by chance, each of them more invested in ending the fight than in actually doing any harm.
The Bull had called out to Etienne that he only wanted to talk. Mahanon had tried again and again to escape. Then the memory spell hit, and when Mahanon woke, he thought he was something better than what he really was.
But he wasn’t better. He was worse.
He stole and he lied and he ran and he killed. Here and there he slept with people, usually while drunk, and then he stole from them, too. Just like he’d stolen from the Iron Bull. He rarely even learned their names, and they never learned his. He knew if he stuck around long enough to ask, he’d only be told to leave. No big surprise. Everywhere he went, there was always a sense that he wasn’t wanted. Not really.
He just didn’t belong.
He just didn’t belong anywhere at all.
It wasn’t fair.
Mahanon stopped in his tracks in the road. The sun was setting now and he didn’t think he could take one more step. He took the carved halla out of his pocket and stared down at it, remembering where it had come from at last.
He’d been sad for a long time, he thought. He’d been sad and alone and he’d never let himself feel that because he knew that the moment he did, there would be no going back. He wouldn’t be able to shove it away anymore, act like it wasn’t there. He’d just break.
But then there had been the Iron Bull.
Without even knowing why he shouldn’t, Mahanon had let him in. They’d been good together. Brains and brawn. And without even realizing it was happening, Mahanon had started to feel - he’d felt -
He felt the sharp edge of a blade press against his neck.
“Fancy meeting you here, knife-ear,” a voice said from behind him.
“You call me that because of the ears,” Mahanon quipped weakly, “but just wait until you find out about the knives.”
His assailant shoved him into a nearby rockface and Mahanon turned and saw an angry but familiar mess glaring down at him. The man before him had a face so swollen his eyes were nearly sealed shut. What could be seen of his eyes was so bloodshot that it was a wonder they were still functional at all. The man was snarling with fury.
“Oh, trust me,” the bandit said, burying the tip of his dagger into the rock inches from Mahanon’s face, “I already know about the knives.”
Then the bandit struck Mahanon over the head and a burst of light and pain dragged him down into dark.
When he came to, his head was spinning and throbbing. He was lying propped upright in the back of a cart, bouncing along down the road. His wrists were tied securely in front of him with a rough length of rope and the bandit was sitting across from him, a knife in one hand and what managed to be an impressive glare given the general state of his face.
“You know, hitting someone over the head with blunt force is actually more likely to kill them than knock them out,” Mahanon said, squirming around in an attempt to sit up straight. “Just something to consider for any future kidnappings you might be planning.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t slit your throat,” the bandit spat. “But it seems Duke Fontaine has other plans. He’s got his knickers all in a twist about something your friend was involved in and put out a nice, big reward for information. We’ll see what he gives me for you.”
Mahanon groaned and let his head drop against a wooden crate behind him.
“I feel like now’s a good time to remind you that we didn’t kill you when we had the chance, even though you attacked us completely unprovoked,” he said. “We even gave you a health potion. Doesn’t that earn me a little mercy?”
“Like I said - I didn’t slit your throat.”
“Great,” Mahanon said. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” the bandit said with a false smile. “I wouldn’t hold out hope that the Duke will be as forgiving, though. He’s in a really, really bad mood.” His smile twisted into something nasty.
Mahanon considered that.
Then he lunged forward and tried to knock the knife out of the bandit's hand. It went flying. So did Mahanon and the bandit. The force of Mahanon’s tackle sent them tumbling out of the back of the cart and onto the dirt road. Someone walking nearby screamed. Mahanon leapt up, intending to run for the treeline, but the bandit grabbed his ankle and dragged him back down.
“Oh, no you don’t!” he cried, rolling on top of Mahanon and pinning him with his body weight.
The horse that was pulling the cart whinnied loudly as the driver brought it to an abrupt halt, and then the driver was hopping down and running back toward them.
Mahanon wriggled in a frankly embarrassing manner, trying anything to break free, but the combination of his bound hands, throbbing head, and the bandit’s weight were too much. The cart driver and the bandit hauled Mahanon up, right in front of a group of stunned peasants who had been walking along the side of the road. Mahanon smiled gamely at them as he was manhandled back into the cart.
“Nothing to see here, folks,” he called to them. “Just your ordinary, every day kidnapping.”
“Keep moving!” the cart driver snapped at the gawking crowd.
They jumped, but hurried to comply, and Mahanon stopped smiling as the bandit retrieved his knife and pressed the tip of it beneath Mahanon’s chin.
“Try that again,” he hissed, “and I might forget about the bounty.”
“Sure,” Mahanon said through clenched teeth. “Message received.”
The cart driver returned to his seat at the front, snapped the reins, and the cart moved on, past the terrified peasants and back toward Val Fontaine. The bandit removed the knife, but stayed close to Mahanon, his shoulders tense with a thrumming energy. Something in his mangled face seemed to suggest he might have preferred Mahanon to try escaping again.
Eventually, he eased up once more and returned to his sitting position across from Mahanon. The knife remained gripped tightly in one of his hands. His other fell to rest on the pommel of his sword.
“Well,” Mahanon said with false cheer, “if these are likely to be the last few hours of my life, I think I’ll spend them as wisely as possible. Do you want to hear how many different things I can imply about the circumstances of your conception?”
The answer was a definitive no.
A makeshift gag cutting uncomfortably into the corners of his mouth, Mahanon craned his neck to watch the cart’s progress into Val Fontaine. It headed down the main street and up toward the Duke’s manor, the people on the streets stopping to whisper and stare as they passed. A couple of guards stopped them at the manor’s front drive and engaged the cart driver in a short, quiet conversation that Mahanon couldn’t hear, even though he strained his ears to listen. Then they pulled through the garden and up to the front steps. The bandit began shoving Mahanon ungently up and out of the cart.
“We’ll take him from here,” one of the Duke’s guards said.
“Not before I get my reward,” the bandit said.
“You’ll receive your reward once we verify the information,” the guard told him. “If you don’t like that, you can turn around and leave.”
There was a tense moment during which the bandit looked like he wanted to press the issue. Then he cursed, spat in the dirt, and pushed Mahanon forward.
“Fine,” he said. “Take him. But I’m not going anywhere until I get my money.”
The guard jerked his chin in signal and two more men appeared. Each one took Mahanon by the arm and dragged him up the steps and into the manor. He tried to jerk himself free as he stumbled after them and grunted angrily through the gag. The guards ignored him except to tighten their grips.
He was taken in through the entrance hall, down a long corridor, up a set of stairs, and then, finally, into an opulent study that overlooked the gardens through floor to ceiling windows. The guards shoved him down into an elegantly carved chair sitting before a large wooden desk. Then they stood and waited in silence.
At least it wasn’t the dungeon Etienne had been held in.
Mahanon huffed through his gag and took a quick inventory of his situation. All his knives had been taken, even the really cleverly hidden ones. He supposed that was what he got for showing off his hiding spots to whatever roadside criminals he happened across. His quiver and bow had also been taken, of course, and there was a notable absence in his pocket where he’d kept his coin purse.
Looking around the room, he couldn’t see much that would be useful for an escape attempt. One of the guards was standing in front of him, watching him with the blank, serious expression of a soldier who was satisfied with his salary. The other had taken up a position by the door. An ornate clock on the wall ticked quietly away as the minutes went by, but neither of them moved, spoke, or gave any indication what they were waiting for.
At last, just when Mahanon was bored enough to start weighing his odds in a two against one fight with his wrists bound, the door opened, and a very angry Orlesian nobleman wearing a silver mask swept into the room.
“Leave us,” he ordered the guards, crossing the room toward Mahanon.
“Ser?” the guard in front of Mahanon questioned.
“I said, leave us!” the man who could only be Duke Fontaine snapped.
The guard hesitated only a moment more, then dipped his head in acknowledgement. The two guards exited the room, closing the door behind them and leaving Mahanon alone with the Duke and the still ticking clock.
The Duke loomed over him. Even with the mask, the anger was plain in his eyes. He was scowling so hard that Mahanon could see his teeth.
“So,” the Duke said, “you are the one who has taken my Duchess from me.”
Mahanon blinked stupidly up at him and hummed noncommittally through the gag.
The Duke made a sound of frustration deep in his throat and reached out to rip the gag out of Mahanon’s mouth. He let out a large breath, as if he’d been holding it, and smiled broadly up at him.
“Thank you,” Mahanon said. “If I go too long without hearing the sound of my own voice, I pass out.”
“I recommend that you refrain from playing games with me,” the Duke said. “You will not enjoy the results. Tell me where my Duchess and that fucking apostate have gone or I will cut your tongue from your mouth and you will never hear yourself speak again.”
“I had nothing to do with whatever it is you're talking about,” Mahanon said, “and even if I did, you have no proof.”
“I have an eyewitness account from the man who delivered you to me that you were recently in the company of the Iron Bull, the mercenary I hired to prevent this exact thing from happening - and who notably failed,” the Duke said.
“Are you sure you want to trust that testimony?” Mahanon asked. “The guy’s eyesight didn’t seem too reliable. His face was pretty messed up. Besides, I heard you were offering a reward. He’s probably just trying to scam you.”
“It would be difficult to mistake the Iron Bull for someone else.”
“It was a different Qunari. You humans think they all look the same.”
“This same man also claims you were in possession of a unique pair of undergarments that he was able to describe with accuracy. I was thoroughly convinced.”
“You shouldn’t have been. Those were my panties.”
“My men and I also found a giant that had been downed by arrows not far from the cottage where my Duchess and the apostate were known to meet. They are very similar to the ones in your quiver.”
“Do I look like I’m dumb enough to try fighting a giant?”
“A pair of torn leather pants matching the fabric, style, and wear of your coat were found in that same cottage. I cannot help but notice that your coat does not match the pair of pants you are currently wearing. Also, the pants we found had knife sheaths stitched into the fabric. Knives that fit those sheathes were found on your person.”
Mahanon opened his mouth, then shut it.
“I will admit that this is more evidence than I expected you to have,” he said. “But I still maintain my innocence.”
“Additionally,” the Duke said through clenched teeth, “I never told you that the Iron Bull was a Qunari.”
“Alright, you’ve made your point,” Mahanon said. “But I think if you step back and take a good hard look at yourself, you'll be ashamed at who you've become in your senseless quest for control and forgive me for my completely justifiable actions.”
The Duke backhanded him.
“Fair enough,” Mahanon croaked.
“Tell me where she’s gone!” the Duke demanded.
“I don’t know!” Mahanon said, then belatedly remembered that he did. “And even if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you.”
The Duke raised his hand again. Mahanon threw his bound hands up in front of his face in defense.
“Okay, stop!” Mahanon said. “Let’s talk this out.”
“I will flay the skin from your bones,” the Duke hissed, leaning in close. “I will rip your nails from your hands and feet, spill the blood slowly from your veins, and crush your eyes in your sockets. I will make every remaining moment of your life an endless exercise in pain. You will beg me to kill you - and I will refuse. ”
“I said, ‘let’s talk!’” Mahanon said. “Maker’s balls .”
The Duke leaned back.
“You’re right, I helped Natalie and Etienne escape,” Mahanon said. The Duke’s hand went for the sword hanging at his waist, so Mahanon hurriedly continued, “But! They knew I was a member of the mercenary band you hired. They weren’t exactly forthcoming about their plans and I didn’t ask because I didn’t really care. If you’re looking for information, you’ve come to the wrong guy. I’m just the hired muscle.”
The Duke considered him seriously, evaluating the veracity of this statement, and then dropped his hand from his sword. He began, instead, to pace.
“Then I will use you as bait for the Iron Bull,” the Duke said. “He will come to retrieve his man and I will beat what he knows from his body. No doubt it will take some time. That is fine by me.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t count on that,” Mahanon said. “He’s not really the kind of guy to stick his neck out for an employee. Kind of an asshole, actually. Plus, my selfless, heroic actions ruined his chances at fulfilling your extremely generous contract, so he cut his losses and left me behind. He’s long gone by now. Halfway to Cumberland, I expect. If you kill me he’ll probably just send you a thank you note. That’s what you get for dealing with mercenaries, am I right?”
The Duke turned to stare at him.
Then he growled in frustration. Reaching up, he snatched the mask from his face and tossed it across the room where it collided with the wall and clattered to the ground.
“ Putain de merde! ” His pacing resumed, faster this time. “First that bastard mage escapes, then Natalie follows. You duplicitous mercenaries betray me, the undead walk the Dales, my men have all been taken, and now you tell me there is nothing to be done? What more! What next! Nom de dieu!”
“Yes, I heard you might be in the market for some new guards,” Mahanon said. He cleared his throat. “I’m light on references at the moment, but I have excellent qualifications.”
The Duke rounded on him, eyes wild.
“This is all your fault!” he snarled. “Everything is lost! All these years I have worked and waited and now Natalie has slipped through my fingers like so much sand. Sand from an hourglass!”
Mahanon leaned back in his chair, eyes flicking to the sword. The Duke’s hand danced across the pommel.
Then the Duke slumped, shoulders heavy with grief. All at once, the anger seemed to seep from his body. His lips twisted into a sad smile. He drew away from Mahanon - listless, unmoored.
“It is hopeless,” he murmured, less to Mahanon and more to the empty room. “Wherever she has gone, she is beyond me now. There is no point. Not even to my rage.”
He turned to the desk and the bottle of brandy that was sitting on it. With trembling hands, he poured himself a glass. Then he stared down into the amber liquid without drinking, lost, torn between some unknown thought and action. He stood that way for a long time, seemingly gone from the world. It was as though he’d forgotten Mahanon was there at all.
Mahanon sat awkwardly in the silence. The clock ticked away in the background.
He glanced around the room again, as if some new escape route would suddenly materialize, but there was only the Duke’s sword at his hip, which was too far away to subtly reach for. If pressed, Mahanon supposed he could always throw himself through the window into the garden below, but he’d really prefer not to. Falling two stories onto broken glass wasn’t the kind of thing he usually tried to do on purpose.
“Do you know, the first time I saw her,” the Duke suddenly said, drawing Mahanon’s attention again, “I thought she was an illusion. A mirage.”
“She is very pretty,” Mahanon said agreeably. “That was my impression of her also.”
“She is more than pretty! ” the Duke snapped. He downed the brandy and slammed the empty glass back down onto the desk. “She is beauty itself incarnate! She is perfection! Above all others; without flaw. How I longed to hold her, to worship her as she deserves, but again and again she turned away. And for what? For that lowly nobody - !”
Mahanon wished the Duke would just figure out what he was planning to do with his prisoner. Or at least share the alcohol.
“Well,” Mahanon said slowly, “the heart wants what the heart wants. There’s no explaining it, and no force in the world can change it, not even magic.” Probably. Who knew what kind of weird shit mages could do. Clearly memory removal wasn’t out of the picture. “So, you know, it’s better to let bygones be bygones. Let it go. And, speaking of letting things go…”
“Let it go!” the Duke said. “You say it as if it were simple! But how can I? How can I possibly - ”
He shook his head and turned away, showing Mahanon his back.
When he stayed that way for more than a beat, Mahanon began to slowly, carefully rise out of his chair into a stand.
“Try picking up a hobby?” he suggested. “Maybe whittling? Something to pass the time.”
The Duke’s shoulders were shaking.
Mahanon glanced at the door, wondering if he could make a break for it. Would the guards still be standing outside in the hall? He might be able to capitalize on the element of surprise. If the Duke’s staff had been reduced so significantly, maybe running was his best option.
A faint whine drew his attention back to the Duke.
Oh, Maker. He was actually crying now.
Did this guy have people for stuff like this? To pat his back and wipe his tears away?
“Uh,” Mahanon started.
The Duke burst into loud sobs and whirled back around, causing Mahanon to jump. But all the Duke did was collapse into a chair and bury his face in his hands as he cried.
“Natalie!” he howled. “Natalie! You could have learned to love me, if only you had given me a chance! I waited all these years, waiting, never forcing, only dreaming - !”
“I mean, you did blackmail her into marriage and then try to have her lover turned Tranquil,” Mahanon pointed out.
“Their love is impossible,” the Duke spat. “A mage and a noblewoman - it never could have come to pass! I only hoped that if he forgot, then maybe she would, too.”
“A woman like Natalie?” Mahanon asked incredulously. “Come on. I’ve seen what kind of panties she wears. She would’ve hunted down a cure for Tranquility first.”
The Duke broke out into fresh wails. Despite himself, Mahanon started to feel bad.
“Cheer up,” he said awkwardly. “There’s plenty of fish in the sea. I’m sure you’ll find someone who loves you for your...unique charms. And your heaps of money.”
“There is no one else I desire!” the Duke cried. He shuddered dramatically. “No one else will ever come close! It does not matter who - an empress, a king, Andraste herself - none will ever measure up to my Duchess. Like a candle compared to the sun! Like a pebble compared to a mountain! Like a drop of water compared to the ocean! All anyone can ever be is a brief, ephemeral moment of escape from this torturous, eternal longing. The future is a barren desert of nothingness, dotted only with the shallow oases of peu de morts , until, at last, the ultimate release - death, sweet death! It cannot come fast enough!”
That did give Mahanon an idea, though. The Duke wasn’t a bad looking guy, all things considered, and Mahanon had definitely slept with worse people for worse reasons. Maybe he could make it out of this with his skin intact after all. And, if he played his cards right, maybe while the Duke was napping he could even take the time to pocket some things on the way out.
“Listen,” Mahanon said. He stepped closer and reached out to snag the bottle of brandy off the desk. “I can relate to what you’re feeling right now. Honestly. I’ve just been through a pretty bad break up myself. I really thought we had something special. I thought we were going to be together forever. But I was wrong. He loved someone else instead.”
The Duke peered through his fingers up at Mahanon, sniffling miserably.
“Yeah, I know, right?” Mahanon said. “Who would pass up on a catch like me? You’d have to be an idiot.”
He worked the cork in the brandy free with his teeth and spat it somewhere across the room. Then he took a long pull from the bottle, making sure to tilt his chin so that it was obvious when he swallowed. The hot burn settled wonderfully in his belly. Careful not to startle the Duke, Mahanon moved closer, until he was standing right in front of the nobleman, almost between his legs.
“Maybe it’s like you said,” he continued, holding the Duke’s eyes. “Maybe life’s nothing but misery, with only small comforts in between. But you know.” He slipped one leg slowly over the Duke’s thigh, then his other leg over the other. Mahanon slipped his arms - still bound at the wrists, the bottle of brandy clutched in one hand - over the Duke’s shoulder and sank down until Mahanon was straddling him, their faces only inches apart. “Not all of them have to be shallow.”
Hesitantly, the Duke’s hands reached up. They settled on Mahanon’s waist, gently resting there, barely touching him. His expression was mournful and tear tracks ran down his cheeks in thick rivulets, but there was a gleam of interest stirring in his eyes.
“Plus,” Mahanon murmured, his lips almost brushing against the Duke’s mouth, close enough for them to share a mutual heat. “Natalie’s not the only one who likes to wear small panties.”
The Duke’s hands spasmed. Then his fingers dug into Mahanon’s hips, pulling him down. Their lips met.
But Mahanon had only a moment to triumphantly think, Got him , because, as luck would have it, that was the moment the Iron Bull kicked the door in.
The door banged against the wall, cracking loudly as wood splintered. Mahanon jumped and tried to pull away from the Duke who reflexively dragged him closer. The Bull had his axe out, and his face - which had been set with concentration - contorted with rage as he took in the scene before him.
“What in Andraste’s - ” the Duke began to demand.
“Get you fucking hands off him!” the Bull roared.
Mahanon let out a squeak as the Bull charged toward them. The Duke yelled and jerked away. The chair toppled, sending them both sprawling, the Duke falling on top of Mahanon, who landed awkwardly on his back.
“Not the brandy!” Mahanon cried as the bottle fell from his hands and spilled across the carpet.
“I said,” the Bull shouted. “Get. Your. Hands.” He reached out and yanked the Duke up by the neck. “Off him!”
The Duke made a sad choking noise and beat his hands uselessly at the air.
“It’s fine, Bull!” Mahanon said, scrambling to his feet. He grabbed the bottle of brandy as quickly as he could, but much of it had already been lost. “It wasn’t like that. Damn. There’s only half left.” He sighed. “It was really good brandy.”
“This murdering rapist,” the Bull said, giving the Duke a shake, “kidnapped you and threatened you and - ”
“That’s a bit harsh,” Mahanon said. “Pretty sure he’s not a rapist. I mean he’s a massively unpleasant douchebag, but I don’t think he’s a total monster, anyway.” He took another drink of the brandy, concerned that the rest of it might end up going equally to waste. “It was completely above board, I promise. All my idea.” A flicker of spite shot through him, encouraged by the alcohol. “I was looking forward to it, in fact. It probably would’ve been the best sex I’ve had all month.”
The Bull dropped the Duke on the ground (he gave a little urk! as he went) and narrowed his eyes at Mahanon.
“Is that so?” he asked.
“Yeah, well, there wouldn’t have been much competition,” Mahanon blathered on. “The last guy I slept with was kind of a dud. A major let down. Not satisfying at all.”
“That’s not what I remember you saying,” the Bull said. “I remember you saying a whole lot of other things, actually. A lot more loudly, too.”
“I think we’ve established how poor your memory is,” Mahanon snapped. “But maybe you’ll remember this!” He took another swig and made a rude gesture.
“Oh, real cute,” the Bull said. “Thanks, Red! Here I was, all set to risk my life to rescue you, and you didn’t need it at all, did you?”
“No, I didn’t!” Mahanon said. “I don’t need rescuing! Not now or ever, okay? I never have and I never will! I don’t need anything or anyone, and I definitely don’t need you! ”
A flash of pain crossed the Bull’s face and Mahanon felt a pang of remorse. He opened his mouth to say something that was probably just as abominably stupid - he had a streak going - but the Duke had climbed back onto his feet.
“Guards!” he yelled. “Guards! Come kill these - ” He broke off into a string of furious Orlesian swearing.
The sound of many armored feet could be heard pounding down the hall.
“On second thought, I’m reconsidering the rescue,” Mahanon said.
The Iron Bull growled and wrapped an arm around Mahanon’s waist, sweeping him off his feet and over the Bull’s shoulder. Mahanon let out a shout of surprise, but at least managed to keep hold of the brandy this time, although a bit more of it sloshed down the Bull’s back.
“You conniving whore!” the Duke snarled, pulling his sword from its sheath.
“I’ve been called worse,” Mahanon said.
The Bull turned and ran, carrying him out the door and into the hall. To the right, five guards in shining plate armor were charging up the stairs toward them, their swords drawn. The Bull went left, knocking over an expensive looking vase in the process. It smashed against the floor and shattered loudly. Mahanon managed to take another drink of brandy despite his precarious position.
“Stop!” the guards shouted.
The Bull ran faster. He paused at a fork in the hallway, then went right.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Mahanon asked.
“I’m making educated guesses,” the Bull said.
“Do you even have a plan?”
Mahanon twisted, pressing himself up by his elbows to take a look at the side of the Bull’s face over his shoulder.
“What, seriously?” Mahanon asked. “You? No plan? Not even a cistern to climb up?”
“It kinda sounded like you might be in mortal peril when I heard the Duke had captured you,” the Bull said. “I wasn’t thinking too clearly, to be honest. I figured I’d just bust down the door, save your skinny ass, and worry about the details later.”
Mahanon considered this with some wonder. He took another long drink.
“My ass isn’t skinny,” he finally said.
The Bull laughed.
“Halt!” the guards yelled.
The Bull took another right, into a ballroom. Several elvish maids were inside, mopping the vast, gleaming floor. They shrieked as they saw the Bull and Mahanon and dropped their mops, scattering away. This, unfortunately, meant that the floor was wet. The Bull skidded and slipped across the tiles, nearly knocking into one of the screaming maids. He managed to avoid her, but only at the expense of colliding with one of the large marble statues standing by the opposite doors. It hit the floor and broke into a dozen pieces.
The guards entered the ballroom just as they were exiting. As the Bull and Mahanon raced out of sight, Mahanon caught the barest glimpse of one guard sliding across the floor and colliding with another. The sound of armor crashing noisily onto tile chased after them. Mahanon broke out into raucous laughter.
“Go back, go back!” he shouted. “That sounded hilarious!”
“Kinda too busy rescuing you to take in the comedy show, Red!”
He rounded another corner and came to the top of two parallel stairs which wrapped down into the entrance hall. The massive chandelier that hung overhead was swaying slightly from side to side. Loud crashing and shouting echoed in the spacious chamber, rising up from down below, the cause of which became obvious as they reached the railing - the Bull’s Chargers were deep in battle with what remained of the Duke’s guards.
“There you are, Chief!” the young soldier from before called, blocking a sword strike. “We tried to hold them off but some of ‘em split away and followed you!”
“Good job, Krem!” the Bull called back. “Time to go!”
“This is like a real fucking rescue,” Mahanon said in amazement. “You’re literally storming the castle. What the fuck, Bull.”
“Yeah, it seemed pretty dashing and heroic before I found you mid-coitous with the bad guy,” the Bull said, taking the stairs two at a time.
“Ye-ah,” Mahanon said slowly.
He was beginning to feel pretty guilty about that. Which wasn’t fair because he hadn’t had very many options at the time and he was still pretty mad at the Bull anyway and it wasn’t like they were anything in the end, right? The whole thing had been a mistake. A big misunderstanding. He took another drink of the brandy and was dismayed to discover there wasn’t much left.
“Okay, listen,” he said. “I’m sorry for what I said earlier about not needing you. That was low and I didn’t mean it.”
“Later, Red,” the Bull said, smashing his elbow into the face of a guard who had mounted the stairs to meet them.
The guard went sailing over the rail with a shout and fell on top of one of his comrades, sending them both crashing to the floor.
“It’s just that I’m pretty sure you’ve ruined my entire life,” Mahanon said, “and I’m never going to be happy ever again.”
A guard turned to meet them as they entered the fray, lunging at the Bull’s back. Mahanon smashed the brandy bottle over his head, spilling some of the precious remaining alcohol out onto the floor. A loud clanging sound rang out from the guard’s metal helmet and his eyes rolled back into their sockets before he slumped bonelessly down. Mahanon wasn’t too concerned about whether or not the blunt force head trauma had only rendered him unconscious. He looked instead at the brandy bottle in his hand, still intact and without a crack in the glass.
“Sturdy bottle,” he said. “That’s how you know it’s quality. Anyway, like I was saying.”
“Later, Red,” the Bull said again. “Chargers! Move out!”
There was a roar as the mercenaries acknowledged him and disengaged from their opponents. Spells and knives went flying. A small end table smashed into the chests of two guards. Someone threw something up in the air which sparked, gave a loud bang, and shattered the chain on the chandelier. It fell with a smash down on the Duke’s men, sending fragments of crystalline glass flying everywhere and drawing uproarious cheers from the retreating Chargers.
They fled through the manor’s doors, out into the gardens, and onto the streets of Val Fontaine. Guard dogs barked somewhere nearby. An alarm bell began to ring.
“What’s the plan, Chief?” the one named Krem asked, coming up alongside the Bull.
“Split up,” the Bull said. “We’ll meet at the lake spot.”
“Got it,” Krem said. “Chargers! Scatter!”
The other mercenaries disappeared up walls, into hedges, and down alleyways with such speed that Mahanon was briefly stunned. Krem himself started to go, but the Bull snagged him by the arm and pulled him into a shadowy alcove behind a blacksmith’s shop.
“Hang on a second,” the Bull said to Krem, and set Mahanon down on his feet.
Mahanon staggered a bit and leaned against the brick wall for support.
“Red, go with Krem,” the Bull said.
“What?” Mahanon demanded, forcing himself to stand up straight. “After all that, you’re leaving?”
“I’m not leaving,” the Bull said. “We’re too distinctive. A Qunari and a redheaded elf? We might be able to escape notice separately, but there’s no way we can do it together.”
Mahanon’s shoulders slumped, but he nodded in understanding.
“I’ll be waiting for you at Lake Celestine,” the Bull said. “Just southwest of here, at the mouth of the river. Krem will show you the way.”
“Bull,” Mahanon started.
“I’ll be waiting,” the Bull interrupted. “We can talk there, if you come.”
Mahanon stared at him.
He was giving Mahanon an out.
No, that wasn’t it, Mahanon thought, examining the slightly pained pinch to the Bull’s expression. It wasn’t that he was providing him with a choice. It was that he genuinely didn’t know if Mahanon would come. And how could he know? Mahanon had already walked away once.
“I’ll come,” Mahanon said quickly. “I promise I’ll come, so - ”
“I’ll be waiting,” the Bull said again.
He opened his mouth to say something else, but seemed to think better of it, because he shook his head and looked at Krem instead.
“Take care of him for me, Krem,” he said.
“The things I put up with,” he muttered. “Yeah, fine, I will. Now get out of here, before you get us all caught.”
The Iron Bull smiled slightly, gave Mahanon one final look, then turned and disappeared into the night like a shadow slipping into nothingness. Mahanon stared after him. The Bull had been right. He could definitely sneak.
In the next street over, a dog barked and someone shouted. Krem grabbed Mahanon by the elbow and pulled him down a small staircase into a concealed cellar. He pushed the door shut behind them and pressed his ear to it, listening for footsteps in the alley up above.
Mahanon staggered and sank into a crouch as the large amount of brandy he’d consumed over a short period of time suddenly unionized with his stomach and liver and began to revolt.
“You doing okay there, bud?” Krem asked, apparently deciding that the coast was clear.
Mahanon answered by vomiting into a nearby bucket.
“It was all the bouncing,” Mahanon explained defensively once he was finished. “Normally I hold my alcohol fine.”
He wiped his mouth and looked up at Krem, who was looking down at him with something crossed between amusement, exasperation, and doubt.
“What?” Mahanon asked.
“Nothing,” Krem said. “Just trying to figure out what Bull sees in you.”
“Admittedly, this is not my finest moment,” Mahanon said. He sat down all the way and leaned against the cold dirt wall. “But don’t worry about it too much, anyway. I’m not competition.”
“Competition,” Krem repeated. He scoffed. “What, you think me and Bull - ? Yeah, right. He wishes.”
“Probably,” Mahanon said. “You’re all shiny and handsome. You’ve got.” He waved his hand at his own face in illustration. “Cheekbones.”
Krem stared down at him for a moment more, then shook his head and turned to examine their impromptu hideout. There wasn’t much - just a bunch of empty burlap sacks and some shelves with broken fishing gear.
“Really, don’t worry about it,” Mahanon insisted. “There was this memory spell thing and - ”
“Yeah, Bull explained,” Krem said.
“Okay, well,” Mahanon said. “Anyway, sorry.” He held up his hands. “Do you think you could untie me now?”
Krem sighed and turned back around. He crouched down and pulled a dagger from his hip, quickly cutting the ropes that bound Mahanon’s wrists. As he did so, Mahanon realized he was still carrying the brandy bottle. A few mouthfuls had somehow managed to survive both him and the escape. He considered it for a moment, the taste of vomit still lingering in his mouth, and then, in an act of contrition, held the bottle out toward Krem.
“Here,” he said. “It’s the good stuff.”
Krem eyed him suspiciously, then took it.
“The Chief owes me way more than a couple sips for this one,” he said, even as he knocked it back.
“You can add it to his already no doubt extensive tab,” Mahanon suggested.
“Eh, he’s usually good about paying it off,” Krem said. “You on the other hand.” He leveled a finger at Mahanon. “You still owe me.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Mahanon said. “I don’t think I’ve ever paid a single bar tab in my life. It’s kind of my thing.”
“Cutting and running?” Krem asked. “Yeah, I got that.”
Mahanon winced and looked away.
“Look,” Krem said. “I really, really, really don’t want anything to do with Bull’s sex life. But he is my best friend, so I feel like I might be obligated to punch you in the face.”
“Fair enough,” Mahanon said.
“That being said, it kind of seems like he maybe screwed things up just as badly as you did, so I’m willing to call it even for now.”
“You’re only saying that because you haven’t heard how he found me in the Duke’s mansion yet,” Mahanon said.
“Okay, stand up,” Krem said, rising to his feet.
Mahanon stood up. Krem punched him in the face. Mahanon let out a rasping sound of pain, but the blow had been to his cheek, so there was no risk of permanent damage at least. His nose had already been roguishly broken in a bar fight years ago and didn’t need any further enhancement.
“How’d he find you in the Duke’s mansion?” Krem asked.
“You’re gonna make me say it even after that?” Mahanon asked.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Fine. I was about to have sex with the Du-”
Krem punched him again.
“Ow!” Mahanon said. “I thought you were done!”
“So did I!” Krem snapped. “What is wrong with you?”
“An incredible amount!” Mahanon said. “Most recently that I had my heart broken, was kidnapped, tried to fuck my way out of it, and now I’m getting punched in a basement that smells strongly of fish guts! Do you know how many times I’ve been hit in the head today? Also, I’m out of alcohol.”
Krem pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Okay, look,” he said. “We’re stuck together at least until we can meet back up with the rest of the Chargers, which could be a while. With that in mind, I’m laying down some ground rules.”
“Why do you get to make the rules?”
“Because I’m Bull’s second in command.”
“Of course you are,” Mahanon muttered resentfully.
“One,” Krem said. “We’re not talking about any relationship shit. I’m not giving you any advice and nothing you say is going to make me feel sorry for you. It’s more likely to just piss me off.”
“Did it seem like I was going to ask for advice?” Mahanon asked. “Because I wasn’t planning to.”
“Two,” Krem went on. “You do everything I say, when I say it, no questions asked. Otherwise, you keep your mouth shut and your hands to yourself.”
“Well that’s not going to happen.”
“Bull told me to look after you,” Krem said. “This job already sucks major druffalo dick, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make it any harder than absolutely necessary.”
“I’m not some damsel in distress,” Mahanon said. “I had the situation perfectly under control before you and Bull showed up - ”
“Is that what you call it?”
“Yes, it is, actually. I had it perfectly under control, but now that things have changed, I don’t need protecting. You want to be the boss? Fine. But don’t treat me like useless baggage, and don’t think you can push me around. I let you punch me because I deserved it, but that’s all you’re getting out of me for free. Got it?”
Krem’s arms were crossed and he was frowning, but there was a considering look in his eyes.
“Alright,” Krem said after a moment. He pulled the dagger he’d used to free Mahanon out of its sheath once more and flipped it around to offer him the handle. “So long as we understand each other.”
Mahanon eyed the knife warily for a moment before he accepted it.
“So what is the plan, exactly?” Mahanon asked.
“We’ll stay here until the search has died down,” Krem said. “That shouldn’t take long since the Duke’s lost most of his soldiers for the moment, but we’ll at least wait for the sun to rise. Once daylight hits and the streets are crowded enough for cover, we’ll head out to the lake.”
Mahanon nodded in understanding.
“In the meantime, you should probably get some sleep,” Krem said. “I’ll stand watch.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine,” Mahanon said.
He sat back down.
“Have it your way.”
For the first hour or so he stood at the cellar door, keeping watch. Eventually, when it seemed unlikely that anyone was going to come poking around in search of them, he took a seat with his back against the opposite wall. The two of them sat in silence for a short time, but it wasn’t long before Mahanon broke.
“Okay, listen,” Mahanon started. “I get that we’ve got this whole reluctant alliance thing going on, but I’m pretty bad at the Quiet Game - always was, ask anyone from my clan. Why don’t we try something else? You already know I’m a no good wastrel, and that’s pretty much all there is to know about that, so what about you? Where are you from?”
Krem looked at him with narrowed eyes.
“Tevinter,” he finally said. “That a problem?”
“What, no, why would it be?” Mahanon asked. Then: “ Oh , because of the whole ‘your people have enslaved my people for like a thousand years’ thing. Nah. You’re good. I can’t see Bull hanging out with slavers. He didn’t seem to have a very high opinion of Tevinter as a general concept, for that matter, but I’m not surprised to learn that he immediately started making exceptions.”
Krem snorted, the corner of his mouth quirking.
“Yeah,” he said. “Bull’s not great at bloodfeuds.”
“How’d you two meet up anyway?” Mahanon asked. “Did you answer a classified ad? ‘SMQ seeks bloodthirsty individuals interested in cracking skulls and making money - must love dragons’?”
That teased almost a full smile onto Krem’s face.
“Nothing like that,” he said. “He saved my life. It’s how he lost the eye. Big idiot.” That last part was said quietly, fondly.
Mahanon felt a swell of affection so large it was almost painful. He tried to stamp it down, but was mostly unsuccessful.
“That sounds like him,” he finally said, just as fondly.
Krem’s smile fell from his face.
“‘That sounds like him,’” he echoed. “You don’t even know him.”
Mahanon stopped smiling, too. His gaze dropped to his feet.
“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t know him, do I? I just thought I did.”
He scratched awkwardly at his face, using his arm to conceal his expression.
The cellar fell back into uncomfortable silence. This time, it lasted.
Mahanon reached into his pocket and pulled out the halla again. He turned it over and over in his hand, remembering each nick and cut, remembering exactly what it was and what it meant, remembering why he’d hung onto it all these years.
When he lived with Clan Lavellan, there hadn’t been many children, not close to his own age. There had been a few babies and toddlers and some older teenagers, but in his own age group there was just him and one other boy. It probably should have been natural for them to be friends, but they hadn’t been. They never even played together.
Mahanon had always just assumed the other boy was shy. By that time - ten or eleven or so - Mahanon already knew he didn’t really fit in with the others, but he wanted to, no matter how much of a troublemaker he was. He’d thought - the other boy, Talen, he was so shy and quiet, it must be hard for him to talk to Mahanon, who was so loud and rambunctious. He must be frightened. Mahanon had to do something to show Talen that he wanted them to be friends. That Mahanon was actually very nice and not scary at all.
So he carved Talen a halla.
He wasn’t good at it. He was still young and clumsy and no one had ever taught him how. He’d seen some of the adults in his clan whittling things - trinkets and toys, jewelry sometimes - but no one had offered to show Mahanon and he’d never worked up the courage to ask. All he knew was that it could be done.
That was fine, though. He was sure he could figure it out on his own. He went out into the woods and found a piece of wood that looked okay. He found an old knife that no one wanted anymore. And he started to carve.
It was hard work. Mahanon’s hands had none of the careful skill he would cultivate later in life. It took him days to carve that piece of wood into anything recognizable as more than a mangled lump, and he cut himself over and over again in the process. The end result was an ugly mess. It hardly looked like a halla at all. But Mahanon had been so proud of what he’d made. He’d been eager to give it to Talen. Excited.
When he was finally finished, Mahanon went and found Talen. The other boy was hanging out with some of the older kids. They were Talen’s friends, probably, not that Mahanon had really been aware of that back then. Somehow he’d always assumed that Talen was just as alone as he was.
Mahanon had called out to Talen, who looked suspicious and reluctant to talk to him.
“I know you don’t talk to me a lot because you’re shy,” Mahanon had said, “but I want us to be friends.”
And then, before Mahanon could even show him the halla hidden behind his back, Talen said, “I don’t talk to you because I don’t like you, Mahanon. Nobody does.”
The older kids all started laughing.
Mahanon ran away.
And after that he stopped trying to fit in with the clan at all.
In the cellar in Val Fontaine, Mahanon stared down at the sad little halla that he’d hung onto all this time. He’d never shown it to Talen or anyone else, never admitted what it was or where it came from, but he’d hung onto it. He hadn’t been able to throw it away.
So he’d taken it with him when he’d left the clan and carried it with him all these years, even though nobody wanted it, not even him. He hated the stupid thing. But there it was - a weight that he carried always.
He turned the halla over and over in his hand and wondered when a stupid memory from more than a decade ago would stop hurting so much. He wondered how many more decades would have to pass before the inevitable rejection was no longer painful, before he finally learned his lesson and figured out how to be happy with his lot in life. It was exhausting, being alone and not wanting to be alone. But he was. That was just something he had to live with. He thought he’d had that figured out.
Then the Bull had come along and made him feel like he belonged and everything had been ruined.
Mahanon put the halla back in his pocket and tried to ignore the way he could feel it there, weightless and tiny and constant.
Mostly, he failed.
He wasn’t sure how Krem was keeping track of time, but he had the clean cut look of a man with military experience, so it came as no real surprise when Krem suddenly stood, cracked his neck, and announced that it was dawn. Mahanon rose, too, stretching to ease some of the stiffness from his limbs.
The alcohol buzz had worn off some time ago, but his head still hurt from the combined effects of the booze and what had probably been a mild concussion. He wasn’t sure exactly which of the assaults had been responsible for that, so he split the elvish difference and blamed human society as a whole.
Krem stuck his head out of the cellar door, looked around, and then motioned for Mahanon to follow him out into the dim morning light. They made their way down an alleyway that went in the opposite direction of the Duke’s manor, avoiding the main road. Just before they reached the mouth of the alley, Krem paused and jumped to pull a sheet from a clothesline that was hanging up above.
“Wear that over your head like a shawl,” he instructed Mahanon. “Your hair’s a dead giveaway. And put that knife away, why don’t you? You look like you’re about to come out stabbing.”
Mahanon huffed in annoyance, but tucked the dagger into his belt - it was too large for any of his normal sheaths. Then he took the sheet, wrapped it around his head, and followed Krem out into the throng.
There were mostly only servants and merchants out this early, and the crowds were still thin, but there were enough people that no one paid much attention as they passed. Once or twice, Krem pulled Mahanon behind cover as tired looking patrols shuffled through the crowd, but they were otherwise unimpeded on their journey out of town.
Once they were out on what was becoming a very familiar stretch of highway, Mahanon pulled the sheet off of his head and ran his fingers through his hair to get rid of any obvious tangles. Krem watched him with one raised eyebrow. Mahanon winked at him. Krem rolled his eyes.
“The meeting spot’s a couple hours out,” Krem said. “If we get lucky, we might be able to find a farmer or something to give us a ride at least part of the way. I don’t suppose you have any coin on you?”
“It was all taken when I was captured,” Mahanon said.
The only thing left in his pockets had been the halla, which had apparently been rejected as worthless. There was something deeply ironic or perhaps metaphorical about that, but Mahanon refused to think about it. He was mostly sad about the lock picking kit. He could make use of other tools in a pinch, but that particular kit had gotten him past a lot of tricky obstacles in its time. Replacing it would be a pain.
“Figures,” Krem said, as if this was Mahanon’s fault. “You’ll owe me your half, then. And if you try to skip out on my tab, I’ll hunt you down and take it out of your hide.”
“Well, I don’t know how much elf leather is going for these days, but I doubt it’ll cover the whole fee,” Mahanon said. At Krem’s glare he conceded, “Fine. I swear on my honor as a Dalish elf that I’ll pay you back. Happy?”
“You’re not nearly as good at lying as you think you are. Swear on that hair of yours and if you break your promise I get to shave it all off and tattoo a great big dick on your scalp. How ‘bout that?”
Mahanon reared back, affronted. Then he leaned back in.
“Have you ever done that before?” he asked with interest. “Tattooed a dick on someone’s scalp?”
“Nah, but I once met a guy in Denerim who had a mabari’s ass and balls tattooed on the back of his head,” Krem said. “I couldn’t figure out if it was on purpose or some kind of punishment.”
“If it was Denerim, it’s unlikely he knew which one it was himself,” Mahanon said. “It’s possible he had no idea he had it at all, in fact. I once spent a long weekend - ”
“Are you swearing or not?” Krem interrupted.
“We’ll discuss it on the cart,” Mahanon said. “Look - here comes one now.”
And he was right. A cart was approaching, coming up the road from behind them, and one that was fairly crowded, too. There were two men sitting behind the horse and four more in the back.
“Might be a bit of a squeeze,” Krem said, letting the obvious diversion slide for the moment. “Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.”
Mahanon squinted at the cart suspiciously. There was something familiar about it.
“Oi!” Krem called out, waving an arm to get the driver’s attention as they drew near. “Any chance we can hitch a ride for a bit?”
The cart stopped beside them. The six men glared down at them. One of them stood up. His face was swollen.
“Ah,” Mahanon said. “Never mind! We’ll catch the next one. Thanks anyway!”
Krem glanced at him, then back at the growing fury on the faces of the men in the cart.
“Balls,” he muttered.
“You!” the bandit snarled at Mahanon.
“Me!” Mahanon echoed back.
“That’s it,” the bandit said. “No more mercy.” He drew his sword. The other men in the cart all stood and drew their swords, too. “It’s high time someone put a blade through your gut.”
Mahanon and Krem exchanged a look and then simultaneously turned and ran. They scrambled into the treeline, ducking branches and hopping logs as the bandits shouted and gave chase.
“You know, for one of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever met,” Mahanon huffed as he ran, “that guy has way more friends than I would have guessed.”
“Or you’ve just pissed that many people off,” Krem said. “Is there anyone around these parts who doesn't want you dead?
“I don't want me dead,” Mahanon said. “Counting you, that's - ” He took in Krem's glare. “ - let’s be generous and call it one and a half.”
An arrow sunk into the trunk of a tree just in front of Mahanon. Another hit the dirt behind Krem’s heels. Krem cursed and weaved right, where the forest thickened and offered more cover.
“We can’t outrun them forever,” he said. “Not in these woods. The terrain is way too difficult to navigate. We’re gonna have to beat them somehow.”
“Your sword looks very nice and large and I’m sure you know exactly how to use it,” Mahanon said, “but I’m a little low on weapons at the moment. That makes it six versus one and a half.”
As he spoke, someone reached out from behind an enormous log and yanked Krem and Mahanon down behind the fallen tree’s upturned roots. Mahanon prepared himself to strike out with his fist, then hesitated when he realized that he recognized the bare-faced elf crouched beside him. She had been with the Chargers back in Val Fontaine.
“Skinner,” Krem hissed in surprise.
“Looked like you could use some help, Aclassi,” the ominously named elf said.
“Two and a half’s an improvement,” Mahanon said.
Skinner glanced at him with a look sharp enough that he understood with sudden and intense clarity how she’d gotten her name. She flicked her eyes over him in silent evaluation, but whatever she concluded, she didn’t voice.
The bandits hadn’t seen where they’d disappeared to through the dense foliage and had slowed down to look for their trail. They yelled out to one another as they crashed through the trees, canvassing out in all directions. Someone stomped loudly past their hiding place, but they remained undiscovered for the moment.
“Grim and Rocky aren’t far off,” Skinner said quietly, once he’d passed. “I’m faster than you, Krem. I’ll lead your tails that way.”
“How?” Mahanon asked. “They’re pretty dead set on killing me specifically.”
Skinner smirked. She grabbed the sheet that was still clutched in Mahanon’s hands and wrapped it over her head.
“Oh, good thinking,” Mahanon said.
“You’re dressed completely differently and there’s only one of you,” Krem said. “There’s no way they’ll fall for that.”
“They will,” Skinner said. “It’s enough that I’m an elf. Shems all think we look the same.” She pulled a dagger out of her boot and flipped it skillfully in her hand.
“Say,” Mahanon said, eyes lighting up as he followed the motion, “do they call you Skinner because of the knives?”
“No,” Skinner said. “The knives are optional.” With this terrifying declaration, she stood. “I’ll see you at the lake spot.”
“See you soon, Skinner,” Krem said. “Thanks for this.”
She nodded once in acknowledgement, then darted over the fallen tree. The bandits saw her at once and a general cry went up.
“There he is!” someone yelled.
“Where’s the soldier?”
“Who cares, it’s the elf we’re after! Let’s go!”
The pursuit moved after Skinner, footsteps thundering off through the underbrush.
“Works every time,” Mahanon said.
“We’d better move before they catch on,” Krem said.
He and Mahanon both stood and began running in the opposite direction Skinner had gone.
“Oi! Wait!” a shout followed them. “They’re over there!”
It seemed not all the bandits had rushed after Skinner. Mahanon looked over his shoulder to see three turning back to pursue them, including the bandit with the swollen face, whose sense for finding Mahanon seemed to be driven by pure bloodlust and fate rather than eyesight.
“I’m going to kill you, you piece of shit!” the bandit roared.
“Yes, I know, that’s why I’m running!” Mahanon shouted back.
“Less talking,” Krem advised. “Save your breath.”
“Oh, that’s a lost cause,” Mahanon said. “Save your own breath.”
He pulled the knife Krem had given him out of his belt and flipped it in a slick imitation of Skinner’s maneuver, humming with pleasure as he caught it. He looked over his shoulder, catching glimpses of their pursuers through the thick trees and brush. There was no clean line of sight. That was fine. He could make one.
“Okay, this is either going to be extremely sexy of me or really embarrassing, so you should watch, but not too closely,” he told Krem.
Krem snorted but looked with one eye as Mahanon vaulted forward, leaping up and to the side toward the trunk of a sturdy tree as they passed it by. He used the toe of his boot to propel himself off of it, up into the air and above the clutter of the underbrush, body turning as he moved. At his peak, he took aim and threw the knife back through the trees.
Mahanon stumbled a bit as he hit the ground again, Krem grabbing his elbow to keep him straight, but he grinned triumphantly as a cry of shock, a gurgle of pain, and the thumping crash of a body hitting the forest floor carried up from behind them.
Krem whistled lowly.
“I hate to admit it, but that was pretty cool,” he said, looking over his shoulder back toward the bandits as he ran. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“I wasn’t very popular growing up,” Mahanon said. “There wasn’t much for me to do other than hang out in the woods trying to hit stuff with knives.”
“Somehow none of that surprises me.”
“Anyway, unless you have another knife tucked away somewhere, that’s me done.”
“Guess that makes it my turn,” Krem said.
They were still running, ducking under branches and leaping over rocks. Up ahead, Mahanon could just make out the sunlight brightening, cutting through the dim light of the forest.
“It looks like there’s a clearing up ahead,” he said.
A few seconds later, they were emerging through the treeline onto a wide grassy expanse that stretched on toward -
“Not a clearing!” Mahanon corrected.
They had come to the top of a cliff which cut down sharply into a deep ravine. On the other side, the woods continued, as if some enormous axe had come down and split the forest in two. A tiny stream trickled over the rocks far below.
“Which way do we go?” Mahanon asked, looking left and right along the bank.
“We don’t,” Krem said.
He turned back toward the woods, drawing his sword and preparing to fight.
“I can’t believe it,” he said gleefully. “We’re about to have a climactic cliffside duel.”
Their two remaining pursuers burst out of the trees after them. The bandit with the swollen face was nearly purple with rage, although that might also have been one of the still lingering side effects of the extremely potent rashvine concentrate that Mahanon had unknowingly thrown in his face. His companion - a stout, balding man - seemed less emotionally invested, but still fairly intent on maiming them.
“I’ve finally got you, you little rat,” the first bandit said. “The Duke refused to pay up after you escaped, but there’ll be no arguing with your severed head.”
“I don’t know,” Mahanon said. “I think if anyone could keep arguing after being decapitated, it would probably be me.”
“Enough!” the bandit said. “Shut up and die!”
He and the other man charged. Mahanon stumbled back a step toward the edge of the cliff, but Krem held his ground. As the balding bandit swung his sword at him, Krem swiveled right and caught the blow with the crossguard. Then he danced forward, hooked his leg around the bandit’s ankle, and sent him tumbling over the edge of the cliff. The bandit screamed as he fell, then broke with a clatter of armor and snapping bones against the rocks far below.
The swollen-faced bandit had charged at Mahanon, who ducked a swipe from the sword and rolled away from the cliff toward the trees. The bandit let out a wordless scream of frustration and swung again, his movements all furious rage. He brought his sword up and made to strike at Mahanon with a brutal, heavy strike, only to stop short. The point of Krem’s sword was sticking out of the front of his chest.
The bandit made a wet choking sound. Blood dripped from his lips and down his chin. Then his body slumped and he fell forward onto the grass at Mahanon’s feet. He was dead.
“That actually wasn’t all that climactic,” Mahanon said with a note of disappointment. “Honestly, I was imagining something with a lot more suspense. Definitely more witty one liners.”
“I mean, backwoods Orlesian criminals were never going to be much of a challenge,” Krem said. “All they had going for them was numbers.” He re-sheathed his sword. “Plus that one guy’s face - I don’t know how he could even see anything. Wonder how that happened.”
“No idea,” Mahanon said. He began rooting through the now eternally blind bandit’s pockets.
“I’m going to assume that means it was your fault,” Krem said. “Whatever. Come on. Skinner and the others might need our help.”
“Hold on, I just want - aha!”
Mahanon held up his trusty lock picking kit, now returned to its rightful owner, and gave it a grateful kiss. He also retrieved his coin purse, which was notably lighter, and snagged the knife that had been the implement of his capture.
“Alright, now we can go,” he said, tucking everything away. “And don’t say anything like ‘I’m glad that’s over with’ or ‘that’s the last of them’ or ‘at least it’s not raining’ because if we have to do any more running today, I’m going to be really annoyed.”
“Please,” Krem said. “I work with Bull, remember? I know better than that.”
They tramped back through the woods in the direction Skinner had gone, stopping to loot the corpse of the man Mahanon had gotten with the knife throw. It had hit him cleanly in the chest. Mahanon took a moment to proudly admire the precision of it before he liberated the blade and the dead man’s valuables.
Skinner and the others turned out not to need their help at all. The elf was waiting for them at the log where they had first met up, a now bloody sheet draped over one shoulder and a human and a dwarf waiting at her side.
“Slow,” she said as they arrived. “Told you I was faster.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Krem said. He jerked his thumb as Mahanon. “This one likes to banter.”
“No wonder he and Bull get along,” the dwarf said. “I’m Rocky. This is Grim. He doesn’t talk much. Don’t worry about it.”
“Actually, if he does start talking, that’s when you should worry,” Krem said. “Remember that time up near the Tevinter border when he got in real close to that slaver and talked for like a minute straight into his ear and the guy shat himself and passed out?”
“Oh yeah,” Rocky said. He looked at Grim. “What’d you say to him, anyway?”
“Well,” Mahanon said nervously. “Nice to meet you. I think.”
He was suddenly uncomfortably aware that he was outnumbered. He studied the group warily, but they didn’t seem to have any aggressive intentions, at least for the moment.
“Those bandits had a cart,” Krem said. “We can take it the rest of the way if someone hasn’t commandeered it yet.”
“Finally, some good news,” Rocky said. “I’m sick of walking. You know, for every step you take, I have to take - ”
“One and a quarter steps,” Skinner finished. “Yes. We know.”
“If you’re having trouble keeping up, you might be out of shape,” Krem said in a deceptively casual tone. “You out of shape, Rocky?”
“Er, no,” Rocky said. “No, I’m not, Lieutenant Aclassi. I can keep up just fine, no extra drills required.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Krem said.
The cart was still on the road, although the horse had dragged it along a short way and was snacking happily on some overgrown shrubs. Grim climbed up into the driver’s seat and easily took control of the delinquent beast with a sharp whistle and an expert tug of the reins. Skinner, Rocky, Krem, and Mahanon climbed into the back, and they set off down toward the lake spot at a steady clip.
The Chargers chatted loudly as they went, the conversation carried mostly by Rocky, with occasional dry input from Krem and Skinner. Mahanon remained uncharacteristically quiet, unsettled by the shift in the power dynamic and feeling awkward among people who clearly knew each other well. He sat at the very edge of the cart with his back to the group and his legs thrown over the side, watching the highway disappear behind them.
After a few minutes, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the carved halla. He closed his fist around it, squeezing tightly for a moment, and then opened his hand again. It was still there.
“What’s that supposed to be?” Krem suddenly asked from over his shoulder. “Some kind of mabari?”
Mahanon glanced up at him and then back down at it.
“Ugly, isn’t it?” he said.
Then he just let go.
The little wood halla fell into the dirt, shrank into a small white speck as the cart bounced on, and was completely gone from his life.
Maybe things with the Bull had been screwed up beyond salvation. Maybe things had never worked out for Mahanon and maybe they never would. It didn’t make a difference. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life bracing for the blow. He was refusing the burden.
It weighed too much.
Krem sat down next to him and knocked his shoulder gently against Mahanon’s.
“What?” Mahanon huffed.
“Nothing,” Krem said.
“Thought you weren’t going to give me any advice,” Mahanon said.
“That wasn’t advice, that was a manly show of support.”
“Yeah, okay,” Mahanon said, lips twitching. “Got it.”
With the benefit of the cart, the rest of the trip went quickly and smoothly. It wasn’t long until they were pulling off the highway onto a worn, partially hidden dirt road that wound through the forest and then out to a flat bank on the shore of Lake Celestine.
Several tents had been set up in a cluster and a few pack horses were tied up beside another couple of carts, each of them laden with supplies. In the center of it all sat the Iron Bull, an elf and human sitting on either side of him. They looked up as the cart pulled into camp and waved in greeting.
“‘Bout time you lot showed up,” the elf called. “We’ve been waiting ages.”
“We ran into some trouble,” Krem said, leaping out of the cart.
“Are you alright?” the human asked. He was eyeing the bloody sheet that Skinner was still carrying like a trophy. “Did anyone get hurt?”
“No one worth mentioning,” Skinner said.
“That’s Stitches and Dalish,” Rocky said for Mahanon’s benefit.
Mahanon nodded in understanding, but he wasn’t looking at the two other Chargers. He was looking at the Bull. The Iron Bull was looking back.
“Good news about all these undead, though,” Dalish was saying. “There’s lots of work suddenly popping up. We’ve already got word from some Countess up near Montsimmard who wants us to clear out her vineyard. The grapes, she says! They’re too precious to lose! Get rid of these pesky undead layabouts! And absolutely no fire allowed!”
Krem groaned loudly.
“I hate the undead,” Rocky complained. “They should stay in the ground where they belong.”
“Says the dwarf,” Stitches said.
“Hey, that’s different,” Rocky said. “And putting things in the ground where they belong happens to be my specialty!”
There was a chorus of “Hear, hear!”
Mahanon hesitated a moment longer and then crossed through the group and past the tents to stand in front of the Bull.
“So,” he said.
“So,” the Bull said back.
Mahanon cleared his throat and looked back over his shoulders at the Chargers, who were all pretending not to be eavesdropping, some with more success than others.
“I guess we should talk,” he said quietly.
“Yeah,” the Bull said. He stood up. “Come on. There’s a spot over there.”
He led Mahanon down the lake shore, toward a big flat rock that jutted out into the water. It was far enough away from camp that they couldn’t be overheard. There were no obvious hiding spots for determined busibodies, but it was still close and open enough that the Bull and the Chargers could keep an eye on one another. And on Mahanon.
“Had it all scoped out, huh?” Mahanon said. “The perfect place to, uh…talk.”
“Something like that,” the Bull said.
Mahanon rubbed the back of his neck and stared out at the water. In the distance he could see the roof of a secluded chateau of some wealthy somebody-or-other poking out through the trees. Further out were the turrets of an old castle. He focused on trying to make out the colors of the flag waving from the top of one stone tower as the Bull joined him.
“First of all,” the Bull said, “I think some introductions are in order.”
Mahanon laughed awkwardly.
“Hi there, I’m the Iron Bull.”
“And I'm Mahanon, I guess.”
“You guess?” the Bull asked, sounding concerned. “Is your memory okay?”
“Sorry, that’s not what I meant,” Mahanon said quickly. “Mahanon’s the name I was given, but I don't use it much.”
The Bull hummed.
“What name do you use?”
“None, for the most part.”
“Huh,” the Bull said. “Well, funny that, because the Iron Bull is the name I use, but not the one I was given. I'm called Hissrad by the Qun. And I still am. Under the Qun.”
“What, really?” Mahanon asked, turning to look at him. That wasn’t at all what he’d expected. “But you're…”
The Bull’s face twisted in a complicated way, like he couldn’t figure out how that sentence might end or how he should feel about it. Finally, he just sighed and settled for looking tired.
“I'm down here on orders from Par Vollen.”
“That’s…” Mahanon was equally at a loss. He didn’t think he knew enough about the Qun to even begin to understand what that meant. Finally, he asked, “Why?”
“I'm Ben-Hassrath. You know what that is?”
Mahanon shook his head.
“In simple terms,” the Bull said, “it means I'm a spy. I'm here to keep an eye on the south. Nothing specific, not usually. Just to send word back home about anything of interest.”
Mahanon nodded slowly.
“Geeze,” he said.
“Yeah,” the Bull said again.
“Well, you have me beat there, anyway. I don't have a back home and I'm nobody in particular. What you see is what you get.” Mahanon spread his arms half-heartedly, and then let them flap dumbly down to his side. “For what it’s worth.”
“Aw, hey now,” the Bull said. He reached out and put his hand gently on Mahanon’s shoulder. “That sounds pretty good to me.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“No, Red, I’m really, really not.”
Mahanon smiled a little, a happy, hopeful warmth pulsing through his chest. Then he remembered the dragon pendants and the corners of his mouth fell. He ducked his shoulder out from under the Bull’s hand and turned to look back out at the lake.
“The Chargers all seem cool,” he said, which was as close as he could get to asking which one of them it was.
Krem had been pretty adamant that it wasn’t him. Maybe it was Dalish? The Bull might have an elf thing. That would explain a lot.
“Yeah, they’re great,” the Bull said fondly. Then he frowned again. “Listen, about the pendants. I need to clear that up. I wasn’t saving them.”
“For me, yeah, I got that,” Mahanon said bitterly.
“No,” the Bull said. “I wasn’t saving them at all, for anyone. They weren’t mine.”
Mahanon glanced at him. The Iron Bull was staring out across the water, expression distant.
“I’m not a Tal Vashoth,” he said again.
“What does that have to do with the pendants?” Mahanon asked hesitantly.
“I have always believed that Tal Vashoth were all monsters,” the Bull said. He huffed out a breath. “Shit, I’ve seen it, on Seheron. Life under the Qun is simple. It makes sense. You do what you’re supposed to and it works. You leave that, you lose that purpose, you just...go mad. There’s nothing to control you anymore. That’s no life and it’s a shit way to die. I’ve always known that. Believed it.
“Well, a few months back, the Chargers and I ran into this band of Tal Vashoth mercenaries. I don’t hunt Tal Vashoth anymore, not like on Seheron. That’s not my job. But I don’t really like being around them for very long, either. We had the same boss, though, and we had to run a couple jobs together. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. Anyway, there was this one pair in the other mercenary band who were inseparable. They went everywhere together, did everything. Finished each other’s sentences. It was like they were one person, split in two. I thought it was kind of funny at the time. Tal Vashoth in love. Some kind of stupid is what it is, I thought.
“Then the job we’re on goes bad. As bad as a job ever goes.”
“They died,” Mahanon guessed.
“Just one of ‘em,” the Bull said. “Just one.”
“The other one,” he continued after a moment. “She made it out uninjured, but you could tell she wasn’t right. I thought - here we go. She’s gonna lose it and I’m gonna have to put her down like a mad dog. I was dreading it. I didn’t want to kill her. But she didn’t.” He shook his head. “When they brought the body back, she stood there with her back straight, sad as hell but full of this immense strength, I don’t even know where she got it from. She just took it. It broke her a little bit, a lot maybe, but she took it, and she kept going. I was relieved, don’t get me wrong, but I also didn’t understand. It didn’t fit with anything I knew about Tal Vashoth. Well, I think she knew what I was thinking, because she took the pendant from her kadan’s body, took her own, and gave ‘em to me. Said I needed them more than she did now.
“Confused the fuck out of me with that one. These things are a big deal, I told you that. It’s a reminder. That’s your center. So I ask her, what do I need them for? And how’s she supposed to remember without them? That’s what I said: How will you remember her without it?”
“Bet she liked that,” Mahanon said.
“Yeah, no,” the Bull laughed mirthlessly. “She got real mad at me, then she got sad again. She said she’d always remember. Everything reminded her of her kadan - the first light of dawn, the smell of fresh vitaar, the sound of a flock of birds all taking flight at once. A lot of stuff; real poetic shit. Kinda knocked me back. She said, the heart never forgets. It knows where it belongs. It always does. It always remembers. She said she knew she’d be fine without them. But she wanted to make sure I remembered that, too.
“I guess I’ve been thinking about that ever since.”
They stood in silence for a long moment, both of them thinking - about pendants and carved halla and reminders.
Finally, Mahanon said, “You were so sure you were Tal Vashoth.”
“Yeah,” the Bull said with a wince.
“You didn’t go mad,” Mahanon pointed out.
“I’m trying not to think about it, to be honest,” the Bull said. “Not sure I’m ready to deal with everything that entails. If I think about it, I might convince myself I need to go hand myself into the re-educators. The fact that I’m even thinking that is.” He ran a hand over his mouth.
“Okay,” Mahanon said. “I get it.”
“You really don’t.”
Mahanon picked at a scab on his hand.
“I’d like to,” he said to it.
The Iron Bull sighed.
“I’m not gonna give you the pendant back,” he said.
Mahanon had expected that, but somehow his heart still sank.
“Right,” he croaked numbly.
“Shut up,” the Bull said. “It’s not mine to give. But, if you want, someday soon, you, me, and the Chargers, we can track down a dragon and kill the shit out of it. Then I’ll give you a new one.”
Mahanon’s head jerked up.
“You can’t be serious, Bull,” he said. “You can’t promise that. You barely know me.”
“I know enough,” the Bull said.
Mahanon shook his head. “You don’t. Even if we get along well...we both just misunderstood, that’s all. We were wrong. I can’t hold you to that.”
“Maybe we misunderstood,” the Bull said, “but that doesn’t mean that we were wrong. Look, I owe you an apology. You were worried about what would happen when our memories came back and I should have listened to you. I made assumptions I had no right to make except that I wanted to make them, and you ended up getting hurt as a result. That was wrong of me. But I knew what I was saying. I knew what I felt. I forgot everything, but I still knew exactly who you were, kadan. I remembered you.”
Mahanon stared down at his feet. They swam in his vision, as if he was standing in the lake and not above it. He sniffed and swiped at his eyes and tried to play it off as casually as possible.
“You’re going soft, Bull,” he accused, when he thought he could keep his voice steady.
“Nah, I’ve been soft the whole time,” the Bull said. “Thought you knew that.”
“Yeah,” Mahanon said. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
He took a deep breath, and then looked up.
“I’m sorry I ran away,” he said. “That was shitty of me. You didn’t lie to me on purpose. You were just as hurt as I was, and I made everything worse.”
“That’s real mature of you, Red,” the Bull said. “I’m proud of you.”
“Hey, I’m trying to be emotionally vulnerable, here,” Mahanon said. “Don’t mock me.”
“I’m not mocking you. I’m being completely serious.”
“Yes, you are. I see your dumb grin.”
“You’re grinning, too.”
Mahanon smiled wider.
“So I am,” he said. He laughed. “What a mess.” He laughed again. “Look at the two of us. It’s hard to imagine how we could’ve fucked this up any worse than we did.”
“I don’t know,” the Bull said. “I can think of a couple ways.”
“We could’ve brought Etienne back to the Duke?”
The Bull shook his head.
“We could’ve woken up, assumed we didn’t know each other, and walked away.”
“Yeah,” Mahanon said. “Yeah. I guess you’re right about that.”
He looked back toward the camp. The Chargers had given up on pretending they weren’t watching and were all clustered at the edge of the tents, arms crossed or hands on their hips. Dalish was bending down slightly to have a whispered conversation with Rocky. Stitches nudged Krem in the ribs with his elbow. Krem rolled his eyes, visibly sighed, and walked back through the camp.
Mahanon turned back to the Bull.
“I think your kids are betting on whether or not we’re going to make out,” he said.
“Probably,” the Bull said.
“It would be a shame to let them down.”
“Eh, someone’s losing money either way,” the Bull said.
“You saying you don’t want to make out?” Mahanon asked.
“Sure do,” the Bull said. “I’m a little more interested in what you want at the moment, though.”
“I definitely want to make out.”
The Bull laughed.
“I meant,” he said, “do you want to stick around? Join the Chargers. Fight a dragon. You know.”
He said it casually enough, but there was no denying the reserved hopefulness in his tone, or the nervous shrug. Mahanon felt another enormous swelling of affection in his chest. This time he didn’t bother trying to stamp it back down. It warmed his whole body. It lit up his entire fucking life.
“Bull, I think we just established that they only way we could possibly fuck this up worse than we already have,” he said, “is by walking away. Of course I want to fight a dragon with you. There’s nothing in the world I’d rather do.”
The Iron Bull smiled.
“Other than make out,” he said.
“Other than make out,” Mahanon confirmed.
“Get over here, you little bastard,” the Bull said, and pulled Mahanon into a kiss.
One of the Chargers wolf whistled. Someone let out a shouted curse. Someone else cheered. Mahanon was not dumb enough to believe this had more to do with him and the Bull than it did with whatever amount of money was currently passing hands.
As they broke apart, the Bull turned and yelled at the Chargers, “Don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing right now? Get to it!”
The Chargers all dispersed, but not without responding with an affectionate level of heckling, first.
“C’mon,” the Bull said to Mahanon. “We should be able to scrounge up some spare stuff for you until our next supply run.”
Mahanon followed the Bull back toward the tents.
“I don’t suppose any of the Chargers know anything about whittling?” he asked as they walked.
The Bull snorted.
“Skinner does,” he said. “But be specific about what you wanna carve when you ask her. They don’t call her ‘Skinner’ for nothing.”
“Um, yeah,” Mahanon said. “That much was obvious.”
They ducked into one of the tents, which turned out to be a makeshift armory. Krem was already there. He had a bundle in his arms, which he shoved toward Mahanon as they entered. Mahanon caught it, blinked down at the bow and quiver resting on top, and then looked up at Krem in surprise.
“Here’s your kit,” Krem said gruffly. “There aren’t any replacements, so don’t lose anything.”
“Good man, Krem,” the Bull said with a wide grin.
“Yeah, yeah,” Krem said.
“Bit presumptuous of you,” Mahanon said with a sniff.
“Is it?” Krem asked. He held out his hands. “I’ll just take it back then.”
Mahanon pulled the bundle close to his chest and glared.
“That’s what I thought.”
The Bull laughed and patted Mahanon heavily on the shoulder.
“Alright, it’s probably time we moved out,” the Bull said. “Let’s put some distance between us and Val Fontaine and go see about this undead job. I’ll spread the word. I hope it pays well, because I have a feeling we’re probably gonna have to return a cursed ruby to some kind of bullshitty magical temple and I’m really not looking forward to that.”
“Wait, what?” Krem asked.
But the Bull was already ducking out of the tent.
“Do I want to know?” Krem asked Mahanon instead.
“Probably not,” Mahanon said.
They eyed each other.
“Okay, listen,” Mahanon told him. “Just to make things perfectly clear, I don’t like people. You don’t seem completely awful, and I guess you’re not the worst person who could be watching my back, but I don’t trust you and we aren’t friends. That’s how we stand. I don’t like people. I just like Bull.”
Krem studied him for a moment longer, then broke out into a small smile.
“Yeah, you’re a Charger, alright,” he said. He reached out and ruffled Mahanon’s hair. “You’ll fit in just fine.”
“Knock it off, shem,” Mahanon said, ducking out of his reach.
“Make me, knife-ear,” Krem grinned. When Mahanon opened his mouth, he interrupted with, “Don’t even try it. I’ve already heard about your one dumb joke.”
“...I’ll think of a new one,” Mahanon said.
“Do it while we march,” he said, shoving Mahanon out of the tent. Following him out, he added, “And don’t forget - no matter how much you suck the Chief’s dick, I’m still your boss.”
“Whatever you say, dad ,” Mahanon snapped, reaching up to fix his hair.
Krem flipped him off and walked away. Mahanon watched him go with the barest of smiles. Dalish and Rocky watched the exchange silently from their seats at the fire circle. Noticing them, Mahanon forced himself to scowl, square his shoulders, and storm off in the opposite direction.
“Yup,” Rocky said, passing Dalish a silver coin. “He’s a Charger, alright.”
And from then on, Mahanon was.
“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass